We need to talk about Somalia

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A malnourished child waits for emergency medical assistance in Somalia. Photo: UN, Stuart Price

Somalia is facing one of the driest rainy seasons in more than 30 years. As a result 2.2 million people are facing hunger so severe that it will threaten their lives. A further 3.2 million people won’t know where their next meal is coming from, that’s around one-fifth of Somalia’s population. 

So why is nobody talking about it? 

If one-fifth of the population of Australia or England or the United States was facing poverty it would almost certainly be on the front page of every major newspaper in the world. Donations would be pouring in from every corner of the globe. Yet in the face of what Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, described as a “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” agencies are having to cut back their relief efforts in parts of the country because the appeals have been so poorly funded. 

In June Lowcock announced that $30 million from the UN Emergency Fund would be allocated to Somalia to immediately scale up the humanitarian response, following the 40 per cent increase in people facing acute food insecurity since January. According to Lowcock “communities that were already vulnerable due to past droughts are again facing severe hunger and water scarcity and are at risk from deadly communicable diseases. Aid agencies in Somalia are also overstretched and grappling with a severe lack of funding”. At the time of this announcement Somalia’s overall Humanitarian Response Plan for 2019 was only 22 per cent funded. 

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator visits a water point in Somalia. Photo: UN, Tobin Jones

This drought comes just as Somalis were beginning to recover from the devastation that occurred as a result of a two-year drought that ended in 2017. Between 2015 and 2017, more than a million people had no choice but to leave their homes in search of work, food and water. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that, since the beginning of 2019, about 50,000 people have already been displaced by the current drought. The impacts of the latest disaster will be heightened as a result of this timing, with Somalis unable to prepare themselves to face the same hardships again so quickly.

In order to minimise the impact of the drought, it is vital that agencies such as the UN receive financial support from individuals and governments worldwide. In 2011 drought and the ensuing famine caused the deaths of more than 250,000 Somalis, half of whom were children under the age of five – an age group that remains at a greater risk. As a result of this tragic loss of life, UN agencies brought in new support mechanisms which have been successful in similar situations in recent years.

Young girls line up at a feeding centre in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo: UN, Tobin Jones

UNHCR global spokesperson Babar Baloch has said: “Let us not forget that, in the past (few) years … with the help of the international community, local authorities and everyone else, famine has been avoided.” Baloch has also said that the UN will only be able to successfully manage this new situation if it can receive adequate funds. 

Relief efforts were bolstered with the August 23 announcement from UK Minister of State for Africa and International Development Andrew Stephenson that an additional £30 million of aid will be provided to Somalia to deal with the drought crisis, on top of the £38 million the UK is already providing in humanitarian and resilience support. “Somalia is being crippled by drought,” Stephenson said. “The UK has been at the forefront of the humanitarian response, but more needs to be done. Britain, alongside the international community, is committed to providing immediate assistance and building Somalia’s ability to manage the crisis.” To deliver the aid package, the UK’s Department for International Development will work alongside UN agencies in providing food, medicine and water supplies.  

A woman washes her clothes in the Dawa River with three day-old-water dug from shallow wells in the riverbed. Photo: WFP

UNICEF Emergency Specialist Peta Barns spoke at an event in Sydney in July about her experiences working for the organisation, most recently in Somalia. She detailed the challenges that Somalia is facing that are both unique to the country and complicate the emergency response to the current drought. There are currently 2.6 million people displaced internally in Somalia due to both the ongoing civil war and the need to move into urban areas to have access to water, and 4.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. These people are significantly more vulnerable to the effects of the drought as a result. Children are naturally also more vulnerable with an estimated 903,000 children under the age of five facing acute malnutrition in 2019. Barnes echoed the statement made by Lowcock that the lingering effects of past droughts are heightening the current impacts. 

Security is a major obstacle for those, like UNICEF, that are trying to provide emergency assistance. Due to the ongoing conflict in Somalia there are many areas where access is restricted because of serious security concerns. As a result crews are either unable to provide assistance or it reaches those in need much slower and at a greater expensive to organisations. According to Barnes, an important relief item in times of drought which many don’t expect is vaccines. Because people have no choice but to drink unsanitary water, cholera is a major concern. As a result they have to ensure locals are vaccinated so the clean water isn’t contaminated. 

Barnes outlined the importance of not only providing an emergency response but also working to improve the resilience of communities for future droughts and environmental issues. “But there are things that we can be doing, so we’re looking more now at sustainable water solutions,” she said. “Let’s not do water trucking, that’s expensive and short term. Let’s look at digging deep boreholes and putting in water piping systems … something that’s actually going to have an impact on that community and make them more resilient. When we do have water issues down the line, people won’t have to move to urban centres to look for water.” 

In the short term it is vital that the millions of people in Somalia desperately in need of humanitarian assistance are able to receive it. This will only be possible with the financial support of both individuals and governments from around the world. It is also imperative that long term solutions are found to increase the resilience of these communities so they are not forced to rely on emergency relief indefinitely. 

You can donate to UNICEF here and to the UN Emergency Response Fund here 

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