From 2010-2012, 260,000 people — half of them children under the age of five — died in the famine in Somalia, a “significantly higher” figure than perished in the 1992 famine when 252,000 people died over twelve months. Severe drought caused a crisis which was made all the worse due to political conflict arising from rival groups in a power struggle, says a new report (pdf) from the United Nations and the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fews Net).
The report reveals the “true enormity of this human tragedy” of the famine for the first time and identifies the slow response of international groups as a factor.
Speaking from a video news conference in Mogadishu last week, Philippe Lazzarini, the chief U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, made the point that the “famine was almost a silent drama of tragedy” in part because “it was not on the news.” Both agencies and media did not have access to affected areas, in part because of the weak central government and lack of security on the roads.
Chronology of the Famine
In 2011, an extreme drought affected in the Horn of Africa, resulting in tens of thousands of people abandoning their homes in a desperate search for food. The famine was first declared in July 2011 in Somalia’s Southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions. These were under the control of the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which is aligned to al-Qaeda. Al-Shabab denied the existence of the famine and prevented more than a dozen Western aid agencies from operating there.
The drought caused livestock deaths and reduced harvests, resulting in a lowered demand for labor and declining household incomes. At the same, the poor harvests were driving food prices to “extreme levels.”
Regions under the control of al-Shabab were ultimately some of the worst affected in the crisis. In Lower Shabelle, 18 percent of children under five died and in Mogadishu, 17 percent. The famine spread from there to Middle Shabelle, Afgoye and camps for displaced people in the government-controlled capital, Mogadishu.
An estimated 4.6 percent of Somalia’s total population of and 10 percent of children under five died in southern and central Somalia.
Why Did the World Drag Its Feet to Help Somalia?
The U.N. declared the famine over in February of 2012. But as Ben Foot of Save the Children emphasizes, Somalia still has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition and infant mortality in the world.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has emphasized that the international response was too slow and was also a factor in so many dying in the famine. The FAO’s Ruth Van Aaken calls on the humanitarian community to take far earlier action, as she says to the BBC:
“Responding only when the famine is declared is very very ineffective. Actually about half of the casualties were there before the famine was already declared.”
What needs to be done is to foster development, by “creating jobs, supporting farmers and pastoralists and ensuring trained, accountable security forces,” and to seek international support to do so. Senait Gebregziabher, country director of Oxfam Somalia, asserts that such a “shocking death toll must never be allowed to happen again.” As she says in the Guardian,
“Famines are not natural phenomena, they are catastrophic political failures. The world was too slow to respond to stark warnings of drought, exacerbated by conflict, in Somalia, and people paid with their lives.”
To prevent another tragedy in Somalia, we cannot wait until an international organization announces that there is a famine. We have to start now, says Gegregziabher, by involving ”women and men from across Somalia….in a bottom-up process to determine the country’s future” rather than implementing “top down” solutions in which the residents of a country are given aid during the crisis, but not educated and directed to create a sustainable future for themselves.
The recent famine in Somalia was, says Fews Net official Chris Hillbruner, “one of the worst famines in the last 25 years.” It doesn’t have to happen again — and we can support efforts like those of Oxfam and Save the Children to work toward this.
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