‘Famine Is at the Door’ in Somalia, U.N. Warns

NAIROBI, Kenya — The United Nations on Monday declared that “Famine is at the door” in Somalia, as nearly half the country’s population faced severe hunger and food deliveries were impeded by conflict, mass displacement and the ever-growing threat from the militant group Al Shabab.

The declaration comes as the Horn of Africa nation is being ravaged by the worst drought in four decades and as the prices of grain, fuel and fertilizer have skyrocketed because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Across Somalia, four consecutive poor rainy seasons have decimated crops and livestock, leaving hundreds of thousands of Somalis malnourished and hundreds of children dead.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N. under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said on Monday that famine would occur in two districts in the southern Bay region between October and December.

But Mr. Griffiths stopped short of officially declaring a famine — even as some aid workers said the situation was deteriorating rapidly and that the threshold for famine had already been passed in parts of the country.

“I have been shocked to my core these past few days by the level of pain and suffering we see so many Somalis enduring,” Mr. Griffiths said during a news conference in the capital, Mogadishu. “Famine is at the door, and today we are receiving a final warning.”

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Declaring famine is unusual but can be designated if 20 percent of households in an area face an extreme lack of food, if 30 percent of children there suffer from acute malnutrition and if two adults or four children out of every 10,000 are dying every day. While humanitarian organizations can warn of famine, the decision to declare a famine eventually falls within the purview of a country’s government and the United Nations agencies.

A mother feeding her child a peanut-based paste meant to treat severely malnourished children at a health facility in Doolow, Somalia, in May.Credit…Malin Fezehai for The New York Times

Famine was last declared in Somalia in 2011, when about 260,000 people died, half of them children under the age of 5. Experts and aid agencies have said the response to that famine was slow and insufficient, and that many deaths could have been avoided.

Mr. Griffiths arrived in Somalia this month and met President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to discuss the situation. But several aid workers said the Somali government, which came to power only in May, was hesitant to declare a famine because it was politically inconvenient.

“We have passed the famine threshold, but politics has played a huge part on whether to declare a famine or not,” said an aid worker who has closely followed the discussions and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “Because it’s a new administration, it is not ready to show it is not capable of handling the drought.”

A spokesman for the presidency did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

After touring parts of the country heavily affected by the drought, Mr. Griffiths said the situation now was worse than a decade ago. The conditions were also most likely to last “to at least March 2023,” he said.

The severe drought blanketing Somalia has left more than 7.1 million people — half the country’s population — in need of food assistance. The drought has also displaced one million people from their homes, according to the United Nations, leaving them unable to grow crops and raise livestock. Somalia is also heavily dependent on crop exports from Russia and Ukraine. The war in Ukraine has driven up the prices of staple food like wheat and sorghum.

The situation is also complicated by the threat from Al Shabab, the militant group linked to Al Qaeda. The group has ramped up its attacks in recent weeks, and this past weekend burned trucks carrying food relief in central Somalia.

Mr. Griffiths lamented the lack of global attention being paid to the crisis in Somalia and said that there was particular need for more funding to assist local organizations.

Besides responding to the drought, aid workers said on Monday, it was also important to help Somalia build long-term systems to withstand the severe effects of climate change.

“Continuing drought and starvation are the future if we do not protect the planet from a changing climate and help the communities hit first and hardest, like those in Somalia, mitigate and adapt,” Daud Jiran, the Somalia director of Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization, said in an email.

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