16 October 2017

Somalia: A Broken State Leads to Hunger

Photo: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters Media Express
A woman at a camp for people diplaced by the drought in Somalia.

Somalia has been in the grip of a civil war since 1991. The state has disintegrated, leaving powerful clans to fill the vacuum. With the government weak and dysfunctional, the country is on the verge of another famine.

Nurses at Banadir hospital in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, have rolled sheets of paper into small funnels and taped them over the hands of one of their patients. It's a way of preventing the emaciated child from pulling the feeding tube out of his nose.

"I didn't know what's wrong with him," said his mother, Faduma. "When I tried to feed him, he started vomiting immediately and he had diarrhea." The boy has also been diagnosed with pneumonia.

In a neighboring bed, Hawa squeezed a paste of energy-rich peanut butter into the mouth of her daughter, Xamdi. The three-year-old can now swallow by herself so nurses have removed the feeding tube she needed when she first arrived at the hospital 12 days ago. In the evenings, Xamdi's fever returns but at least she's gained some weight. She now tips the scales at seven kilograms - half of the normal weight for her age.

"There was nothing to eat at home and our children were getting weaker and weaker. That's when we decided to leave," said Hawa. The family walked for eight days under the cover of darkness - for fear of encountering Islamist al-Shabab fighters.

"We live out in the countryside with our animals. There's no hospital or help out there," Hawa said.

The families of Hawa and Faduma are nomadic herders. Used to water shortages and harsh conditions, they traditionally pack up and move their camel and goat herds in search of fresh pastures and water. "We're just focused on our animals. We follow the rain," said Hawa.

But it's raining less and less than it used to in Somalia. In the past three years, back-to-back droughts have swept the country and evidence is mounting that climate change is driving up the temperatures in the region, exacerbating the problems of the scarce rainfall. The Horn of Africa is turning into a dusty steppe.

As a result of this latest drought, Hawa and Faduma's families have lost almost all of their livestock, like many other nomadic pastoralists in Somalia. The lack of food is driving malnutrition and the lack of drinking water is accelerating outbreaks of diarrhea.

Preventable diseases

The families of Hawa and Faduma plan on returning home when their children are better. Many others though, have left their traditional lands in search of food and water, or to escape the country's long-running conflict.

Read more: Al-Shabab militants launch deadly attack on military base in Somalia

These internally displaced people are often living in terrible conditions, which is having devastating health effects.

"Most patients are living in overcrowded refugee camps, where there is not enough food or clean water," said Bishara Suleiman, a health coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Between January and July 2017, the 28 clinics supported by the ICRC in Somalia treated almost 37,000 people, mostly for acute respiratory illnesses and diarrhea.

"Malnutrition destroys the immune system," explained Bishara Suleiman. "Malnutrition itself is preventable but it is so widespread due to the collapse of the health system. Malnourished children and elderly people are particularly susceptible to infectious diseases, such as pneumonia or cholera."

Political failure worsens hunger

Since dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, rival clans and warlords competing for power in Somalia have torn the country apart. Although the country has a new government since February 2017, it faces critical problems from Al-Shabab extremists seeking to establish an Islamic state to rampant corruption.

Both threaten the ability of humanitarian aid to arrive where its needed most. The Islamist militants have imposed a ban on aid in areas it controls. Elsewhere, middlemen and local authorities divert aid supplies for their own profit.

At a small market on the Via Roma in Mogadishu, for example, a 50 kilogram sack of rice intended as food aid from the World Food Program is on sale for $23 (19.50 euros). Buying in bulk earns a discount.

Michael Keating, the United Nations Special Envoy for Somalia, believes that widespread hunger in Somalia can be directly attributed to political failure.

"In functioning societies, in which the institutions work reliably and in which freedom of expression prevails, there is hardly any hunger," he said. "It is something that always affects the poorest and weakest members of society. It is a direct product of social, economic and political processes."

Difficult reconstruction

According to the UN, almost seven million people in Somalia, or half the population, currently depend on humanitarian aid. The Western-backed government, which has been in power since February 2017, wants to build a new, federal state. The general mood in Mogadishu is optimistic. Foreign diplomats and businessmen are flocking to the country, including crisis profiteers hoping to turn a quick profit. Rents are skyrocketing and a housing bubble has developed in the capital. Ministers and parliamentarians are also involved with construction projects.

Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman would like the international community to invest directly in the budget so as to prevent future hunger crises. "We are absolutely dependent on the trust of our international partners. If we don't get money to build the state, we can't be accused of corruption," he said.

His also suggests that international aid isn't free of corruption. "The flow of money through the many multilateral sources should also be reviewed. But the focus is always on corruption on the Somali side," he said.

Change takes time

More than 250,000 people died in Somalia's last major drought in 2011. Although the United Nations warned of a looming famine, the humanitarian response was late and ineffective for a variety of reasons.

Since then, the response to the drought has improved.

"We have spent four billion dollars on humanitarian aid since 2011," said UN emergency relief coordinator Peter de Clercq.

However, international emergency aid "cannot replace a functioning state," he warned.

"Think about where we would be today if we had invested four billion dollars in reconstructing Somalia? I am not saying that we should stop humanitarian aid. But we urgently have to invest in development," de Clercq said.

At the same time, he stressed that it's important to make plan for the long term.

"If we lack strategic patience, we won't succeed in Somalia."


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