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Somalia famine 'not far off'

By Andrew Hosken
Today programme

Children in the Tawikal camp for internally displaced people in Bosasi, Somalia

Desperate government officials in drought-stricken areas of Somalia are telling people to survive by eating leaves, as the drought situation worsens, hardy camels die and the announcement of a state of famine draws closer.

This is the season of the Gu in Somalia, the time of the life-giving rainy season that lasts from April to the end of July.

But the rains have not come for the second successive time and in its place has come a severe drought, which is threatening at least four million lives in Somalia alone.

Aid agencies are now talking about an inevitable declaration of a famine in Somalia for the first time since 1992.

Then, at the height of a vicious civil war, more than 200,000 people died but many more could be threatened this time round.


The main reason for the severity of this drought - as compared to the droughts of previous years - is the catastrophic and extensive death of livestock.

Somalis are mainly nomadic herders and more than 65% of people depend on their animals to survive.

The BBC has discovered that in some regions of Somalia, approximately 80% of livestock has been wiped out.

Most of the remaining animals are too emaciated to produce milk or fetch any money at the market.

The rich herders, those with more than 400 head, are becoming poor; the poor herders are becoming utterly destitute and dependent on camps for internally displaced people (IDP).

Sonia Zambakides, the emergency manager of Save the Children for Somalia and Somaliland, told the BBC: "I think I've found the situation very shocking.

"We are talking about communities where between 80% and 85% of their livestock has been destroyed.

"This is a pastoral community; that means everything's gone. It's all about their livestock and animals."

Schools closed

The statistics make frightening reading. Of Somalia's population of nine million population, it is now estimated that 2.85 million people are in crisis - nearly a third of the population.

A further 1.75 million are at risk of crisis. These figures are based on those regions where access for outside non-governmental organisations and agencies is relatively unrestricted.


But this is not the case for areas of central and southern Somalia which are ruled by a hotchpotch of warlords, militias and the al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgency group which has been accused of having links to al-Qaeda.

The situation is so grave that even al-Shabab has appealed for help from the outside world.

This is despite the fact that it has been accused of murdering aid workers and had even banned many agencies from operating.

One senior aid worker, who asked not be named, told the BBC: "You know things are desperate when even al-Shabab is forced to appeal for help. They are a deeply unpalatable lot but we have to work with them if we are to save lives."

It is not known how many who have died so far, but it is clear that an increasing number of people have succumbed.

I was one of the first Western reporters to visit some of the worst-affected areas in northern Somalia to talk to people, internal refugees, government officials, aid workers and nomad farmers.

The worst-affected area in this part of Somalia called Puntland is the Karkar region, home to 200,000 people.

Here, approximately 85% of livestock has already died. Perhaps the most alarming feature of this drought has been the death of many camels which are considered in normal times to be almost drought-resistant.

Fatima and her son, aged 11 months

I met one camel herdsman, Ahmed Mohammed, who told me: "We have come through a severe drought and I have lost more than half of my camels.

"It is a terrible sign when camels start dying because when they start to die, then what chance have sheep, goats and cattle?"

Not much, it seems. Nomad farmers who have lost their animals are now flooding into camps for internally displaced people by the hour.

I spoke to one herdsman whose 350 head flock has been reduced to just 45.

This time last year, Farah Mohammed, who has 15 children and two wives, considered himself to be a wealthy man.

"I now consider myself a poor man," he told me. "I don't know what the future holds but I know it is not good."

His story is becoming an increasingly typical one. He thinks he will be forced to move into a camp within weeks.

The drought is affecting everyone in Somalian society.

The crisis in the pastoral community means tradesmen and lenders have fewer customers and even teachers will not work because no-one can afford to pay them.

Camels in Karkar region
Up to 50% of the country's camels have already died

As a result, 90% of the schools in Karkar have closed.

The death toll is also steadily climbing.

In the Sool Plateau area, 150 have now starved to death and in the area known as Bender-Bayla, another 150 have died. In some coastal areas of Puntland, the crisis has been exacerbated by the notorious pirates.

Many refugees have had terrible experiences in reaching places of safety.

Habiba Mohamed Hassan fled the war-torn capital of Mogadishu last week after militias murdered her husband and she and her children faced starvation.

On her journey, militiamen raped women and stole her clothes. The lorry caught fire and she suffered serious burns.

She said: "This drought is worse than previous droughts because this time we don't have anything, we don't have animals because they have all perished away and we don't have any food or source of income and what we do have is stolen by militia."

The decision to declare a famine is taken by the Food Security Analysis Unit, which works to the United Nations.

Normally, famine is declared when malnutrition rates reach 15%.

According to Save the Children, malnutrition rates at some of its feeding centres have already reached between 25 and 33%.

A famine declaration within the next two weeks looks almost certain.

Somalia profile
Thursday, 7 March 2013, 14:51 GMT |  Africa


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