Why Somalia hasn’t declared a famine in the midst of one of its worst cases of widespread famine

Somalia is on the brink of its worst famine in half a century as drought worsens and global food prices soar, putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation.

The United Nations has warned that famine will ravage parts of the country in the coming weeks – and is forecast to be worse than in 2011, when famine killed more than a quarter million people there, about half of them Children.

More than $2.2 billion is needed to provide food, water, shelter, health and sanitation facilities and other support to drought-hit communities, but Somalia has received only about half of that from foreign donors.

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“The international community must not wait for a declaration of hunger to act,” UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Natalia Kanem told the Thomson Reuters Foundation after visiting Somalia earlier this month. “We need to get in there with a life-saving response now.”

Aid workers said the famine threshold had already been crossed in some areas and called for an immediate official statement that would draw global attention to the disaster, mobilize much-needed foreign aid and save lives.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm about famine for months, but help has been slow to come. Now we are facing a catastrophic situation, people are dying,” said Adil Al-Mahi, head of the Somalia charity Oxfam. “A famine will certainly bring more support.”

However, declaring a famine is a complex process that is heavily influenced by politics. Here are some facts:

A severely malnourished Somali child is seen at Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Dagahaley refugee camp on Aug.  20th, 2011.

A severely malnourished Somali child is seen at Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Dagahaley refugee camp on Aug. 20th, 2011.
(Lynsey Addario/Getty Images)

What is a famine?

A famine is declared in an area where severe hunger is already widespread and people are dying of starvation because they do not have enough nutritious food.

According to the United Nations, the affected area must meet three conditions:

– At least 20% of the population is affected by extreme food shortages

– At least 30% of children suffer from acute malnutrition

– Every day, at least two out of every 10,000 residents die from starvation or a combination of severe starvation and disease

Why is Somalia facing another famine?

Climate change is the main reason, say helpers. Somalia – and parts of neighboring countries Ethiopia and Kenya – are facing a fifth straight wet season.

This has brought vulnerable populations – already hit by years of insurgency by Islamist insurgents al Shabaab and loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic – to the brink.

Hunger has worsened due to the rising cost of grain, fuel and fertilizer following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Somalia depends on Russia and Ukraine for 90% of its wheat, and the prices of some staples have risen by as much as 160%.

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How is the drought affecting Somalis?

About 6.7 million people – nearly half the country’s population – are suffering severe hunger as a lack of rain for more than two years has decimated their crops and killed livestock.

More than a million people have been forced from their homes and forced to wander for days in search of food, water and medical treatment.

Hundreds of malnourished and disease-affected children have already died and more than 300,000 people are at risk of starvation.

If people are dying, why wasn’t a famine declared?

The decision to declare a famine is generally taken jointly by the government and the United Nations.

A declaration of famine can be politically contentious, as governments may view it as a disgrace to their rule and an opportunity for opponents to highlight a failure in governance and an inability to provide basic protection.

Aid workers in Somalia said part of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s newly elected government was reluctant to declare a famine because it would hurt public support and play into the hands of Al Shabaab insurgents.

The government also fears that a famine declaration could deter investors and divert foreign aid for long-term development projects to the famine response.

In September, Mohamud admitted that the prospect of famine in parts of Somalia was serious.

“Declaring a famine itself is a very difficult situation that not only affects the victims of the famine, but halts development and changes perspectives,” Mohamud said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

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Will a famine declaration force action?

no The famine declaration does not impose any binding obligations on the United Nations, the government or other UN member states, but serves to draw global attention to the situation and mobilize resources to provide emergency relief. When another drought paralyzed Somalia in 2017, swift action helped avert famine.

What are the prognosis for Somalia for the coming months?

Forecasts are grim, suggesting there will be little rainfall during the current rainy season, which is likely to extend into the next rainy season in March-May, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).

“Regardless of next year’s rainfall performance, recovery from a drought of this magnitude will take years, with extremely high humanitarian needs remaining and even increasing in 2023,” FEWS NET said in a statement.

“Many people have completely lost their livelihood and coping skills and are heavily reliant on assistance to meet their basic needs,” she added.

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