/ 29 July 2011

Beyond Somalia’s food crisis

Fini, a village so small it doesn’t appear on many maps, is growing every day. In tired groups, carrying their few belongings, people trek in from the wilderness, their livestock nearly all dead and their ability to cope exhausted.

They are coming to this cluster of three dozen stick shacks by a rarely used sandy track because they have heard someone is bringing water. Out on the empty plain, parched to dust by a drought stretching back three years, there is no water. There is no grazing for their animals.

Even for a hardy people who have adapted over generations to survive in this arid emptiness this drought is daunting. Like 11.5-million others across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, they could starve to death unless outside help reaches them.

On July 20 the United Nations, which had warned of this looming crisis in January, said that parts of Somalia were now in a state of famine. Famine was last declared in 1984, when almost a million Ethiopians died, and again in 1991-1992, in parts of Somalia.

Millions of Somalians are on the brink of starvation. We take a look at some of the worst-hit areas and the aid camps that are struggling to deal with the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

International aid agencies, governments and the UN are appealing for a total of $1.6-billion to deliver supplies to help the worst-affected in this latest drought to sweep the Horn of Africa.

Already, one Boeing 747 has landed in Kenya full of food, medicine and tents. More aid is expected. In Somalia Unicef has sent supplies by plane to an airstrip that has been off-limits for more than a year, under a deal with Islamist rebels there.

Ships carrying tens of thousands of tonnes of maize from warehouses in Kuwait have docked in Djibouti to the north and Mombasa to the south. More food is on its way. “There’s no doubt that lives have been lost but there are many, many more that will be saved if the world responds as it must,” said Mark Bowden, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia.

The United States state department has announced partial easing of laws that prohibit it from funding appeals if there is any risk that supplies could benefit terrorists. There is a growing sense that the world response is gearing up.

About 120 kilometres southeast of Fini lies the Dadaab refugee camp, featured on television as the epicentre of the disaster. There aid agencies rush to transfer truckloads of supplies to the 1 400 people arriving daily from Somalia. Already the camps, built to house 90 000 people, are overwhelmed with almost 400 000. Emergency wards are filled with babies. Dozens have died but most are safe now that they are receiving help.

The real crisis, though, lies far from those camps. Uncounted numbers of people are still walking, sometimes for weeks, to reach safety. Uncounted others are gathering in villages like Fini, far from the relief supplies of what has suddenly become the world’s most urgent humanitarian operation.

“Why have we been forgotten? I cannot tell you,” said Dekow Farah, who walked with his two wives and nine children to Fini a month ago.

His 500-strong herd of sheep, which marked him as a man on his way to being wealthy, has been decimated. Today he has fewer than 50, all in such poor condition that they are near worthless.

Beneath a leafless thorn tree in Fini, his last cow, once the best milker in his herd, needs the help of three men to stand and shuffle into the meagre shade. “She is dead already. There is no strength in her to eat even if there was food,” Farah said.

Gathered under another thorn tree under a cloudless sky, a dozen old men described what it meant to face down famine in a place like Fini. These are people, like their cousins in Ethiopia and Somalia, who survive by drinking the milk and selling the meat of their animals.

In annual cycles they have followed ancient maps in their minds of where the water was and where there would be green shoots on the ground for the animals.

There had been droughts before, Farah said. When the rains fell, his grandfather taught him, slaughter one camel and dry its meat. That would see you through the hard times until the rain came again.

But in recent years the rains have not come. Their wanderings led them only to dried-up water points and long-gone grasslands. First one by one, then half a dozen a day, the animals died. The few remaining now fetch such poor prices that a cow that was worth the equivalent of six big bags of rice now buys less than one.

Prices in the markets have soared. Maize meal is almost twice the price of two years ago; sugar has more than doubled. Together these factors have led to the total breakdown of the local food system.

World Vision, a US-based Christian charity, has been trucking 15 000 litres of water here and to 23 other villages nearby at least once a day since January. It is running dangerously short of funds.

“That is the only help we have seen,” Farah said. Stabbing his fire-hardened walking stick in the direction of the single-lane track passing through the village, he said: “We see government vehicles passing sometimes. But they never stop.”

A toxic mix: drought, politics and war. The more frequent droughts are forcing people for the first time to settle permanently in villages with boreholes or towns with schools and hospitals, and to turn their backs on living by their livestock.

Abdullahi Wardere left the area his family roamed for generations and walked to Habaswein, the nearest big town to Fini, with his son and daughter-in-law and their three children. “There is no one there where we came from — you will find all the villages are empty,” he said. “This must be where we stay now.”

It is easy to think that these stark decisions have been forced on desperate people simply by a changing climate. But politics has played its part, too. All the regions affected lie far from their countries’ capitals, where there are few voters and few spoils for politicians. No roads have been built to link herders’ animals with major markets. No slaughterhouses or refrigeration plants have been constructed to turn subsistence living into profit-making husbandry.

In Somalia, especially, the toxic mix is critically compounded by conflict. Low-intensity war has raged for more than two decades.

A people under constant threat of death do not invest in the future. A nation with no government is powerless to support the social welfare of its people.

Al-Shabab, Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked Islamists, has promised to allow aid workers back in — unimpeded, unkidnapped, unlooted and untaxed this time.

What is also needed, once the immediate disaster has been averted, is long-term investment to prepare for future droughts. Aid agencies complain that their requests for funds to establish projects that will give people a better chance of surviving the next years without rain go unheeded.

“Emergency aid is vital right now,” said Fran Equiza, Oxfam’s director in the Horn of Africa. “But we also need to ask why this has happened and how we can stop it ever happening again. The warning signs have been seen for months and the world has been slow to act. Much greater long-term investment is needed in food production and basic development to help people cope with poor rains and ensure that this is the last famine in the region.” —