The Somali Famine

A girl stands on the outskirts of the Dabaab refugee camp, surrounded by 70 freshly-dug child graves
A girl stands on the outskirts of the Dabaab refugee camp, surrounded by 70 freshly-dug child graves

Early this month, the United Nations announced that the famine wracking Somalia, itself just the worst aspect of a food crisis afflicting a swathe of East Africa, was officially over. Given that this meant little more than the amount of food available to keep scores of ailing human beings alive had just crept over an arbitrary threshold, this doesn’t come as much consolation to the 2.34 million people still teetering on the brink.

In as much as it means that material conditions are improving in the areas afflicted by the world’s worst food crisis, the news is excellent. In the West, though, it was far more depressing than it should’ve been, only serving to highlight how few people had any idea it had happened in the first place. This was a situation that occurred, worsened, took a horrific toll and began to peter out while the vast majority of Western civilisation obliviously went on with its business. It’s hard to blame individuals when the amount of media coverage given to an event of this grim magnitude has been pitifully small. While tens of thousands of human beings starved to death, their plight was inexcusably allowed to slip down the back of the news agenda. On the rare occasion that it was deemed newsworthy enough to make the headlines, coverage was customarily blasé  – events were conveyed in random flashes with little attempt to explain the context or the causes behind them, the crisis generally presented as just another freak happening in an inherently backwards netherworld where nothing ever goes right.

What happened?

In 2010 and 2011, rains failed across East Africa. In an area so heavily dependent on agriculture as both a way of making money and a means of survival, the effects were devastating. The price of grain not only shot up by 240%, but millions of people lost their livelihoods as cattle were killed off by drought. In some areas, up to 90% of livestock is estimated to have died.

Before long, 500,000 people were at severe risk of starvation, two million children were acutely malnourished, and 12 million people were in need of urgent humanitarian assistance across areas of Kenya, Ethopia and, most notably, Somalia. In the space of 90 days, 29,000 children died.

In Somalia, political strife hampered the delivery of the aid that was so desperately needed. For twenty years, the country has been in a near-constant state of civil war. In 1991, Somalia’s long-standing authoritarian military regime was overthrown by a coalition of anti-government militias. Various groups violently competed for supremacy in the power vacuum that followed, resulting in two decades of conflict that have shredded the country’s infrastructure and left approximately half a million people dead.

In recent years, the bulk of the fighting has been between Somali’s federal government and a group calling itself Al Shabaab, Islamist militants affiliated to Al Qaeda, who have denied the existence of a food crisis in the areas under their control and expelled aid workers providing the only assistance those in need were receiving – the official government, weakened by years of fighting, certainly isn’t in a state to effectively distribute aid.

The UN officially declared areas of Somalia to be in famine in July, but the precarious political situation combined with the low amounts donated from richer nations made it incredibly difficult to assist the starving. Tens of thousands of people died.

Where are we now?

Good rains and food deliveries from aid agencies have led to the Somali crisis being downgraded from a ‘famine’ to a ‘humanitarian emergency’ – incidents are graded according to their death rate.

Slight improvements shouldn’t detract from the fact that this is still an abject situation, with millions subsisting entirely off of foreign aid and in danger of starvation. This year’s harvest was double the average output of the last seventeen years, but this exceptional yield will still only provide 10-20% of the food needed to feed Somalia’s population over the next 12 months. 25% of that population has been displaced by the crisis, and 400,000 Somalis are living in the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya. Two thirds of Somalis are still in need in need of aid, many of them in Al Shabaab-held territory, and, more generally across the region, millions of people still need food, clean water and shelter to stay alive.

The UN has warned that stocks of food aid could run out by May. Considering that Western awareness of this crisis has already been shamefully low, that news coverage of it has all but evaporated, and that donation totals so far have been lacklustre, it’s now a case of hoping against hope that enough money gets through to the people who need it to ease the preventable, unimaginable suffering that the region is having to endure.

Here‘s a link to donate to Oxfam’s East Africa appeal.