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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 01:18 GMT
Drought-hit Somalia's race against time
By Adam Mynott
BBC News, Somalia

Somalia is now in the grip of one of the worst droughts to hit the Horn of Africa for decades. The country has been without a functioning government for the past 15 years.

Somali child in hospital
Only the lucky ones get to hospital in Somalia
The combination of these two factors threaten to bring a human tragedy on a vast scale.

In the southern Lower Shabelle region, Kadicha Mohammed said that none of her three children had had a proper meal for a week.

No-one knows how many people in Somalia are affected by drought for the simple reason that in this lawless land no-one knows the size of the population of Somalia.

The last attempt at anything approaching a census was back in the 1980s.

Omar Abdul Haili of the International Committee of the Red Cross said hundreds of thousands of people could die if they don't get food in the next two months.

"I've never seen it this bad."

The ICRC is buying grain locally in markets in Mogadishu and distributing it to those they consider most in need.

Muddy water

The area worst affected by a chronic lack of rainfall is in the south of the country, where the mainly pastoralist community has watched its animals die in the thousands.

The UN World Food Programme has spoken of the likely death from starvation, and other drought-related factors, of 80% of the animal stock in the region.

Dry river bed

Thousands of people have moved from other parts of southern Somalia into this district in order to get close to the Shabelle river, where some muddy water is still flowing.

In the absence of a working government in Somalia, the country is divided into the fiefdoms of rival warlords.

It is one of the most hostile places on the planet.

Getting around is hazardous; travelling without a "technical", a pick-up manned by half a dozen gunmen, is more than foolhardy.

We clambered into our vehicle and the technical, bristling with semi-automatuic weapons, dropped in behind us as we travelled away from the airfield.

Food for women

We were heading for a temporary camp that had sprung up in Lower Shabelle, filled with families living in structures of sticks and bits of cloth, under the baking sun.

The ICRC had arranged a food distribution and about 1,500 people, some who had walked for 10 days or more, were waiting for a hand-out of grain and cooking oil.

Facts and figures about life in Somalia

The ICRC gives the food to the women; it stands a better chance of getting into the mouths of the children and elderly who need it most.

They say the men will take it and sell it in exchange for khat, the drug that many Somali men chew in vast quantities.

Kadicha Mohammed was given a big sack of maize and a container of cooking oil. She divided it up with two other families.

The drought has been caused mainly by the failure of two sets of seasonal rains last year, but the rainfall over the past decade has been consistently low.

New rains are expected soon, but they are already forecast to be poorer than usual and even if they come on time and in plenty, the plight of thousands in southern Somalia will remain very grim indeed.

Across the Horn of Africa, it is estimated that 11.5 million people are suffering because of the drought, and the ICRC and other agencies say the international community must donate money and food soon to avoid many, many deaths.

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