Somalis are starving, why isn’t a famine declared?

Somalia is on the brink of its worst famine in half a century as drought intensifies and global food prices rise. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of starvation. Yet no official famine has been declared. How did it happen?

The UN has warned that parts of the country will be affected by famine in the coming weeks. It is expected to be more serious than in 2011, when famine there claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people. About half of them were children.

More than $2.2 billion is needed for food, water, shelter, health and sanitation and other support for affected communities.

More than $2.2 billion is needed for food, water, shelter, health and sanitation and other support for affected communities. To date, Somalia has received just under half of that from foreign donors.

“The international community should not wait for an official famine declaration to take action,” Natalia Kanem said after a visit to Somalia earlier this month. She is the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “We have to come up with a life-saving answer there now.”

Aid workers say the famine threshold has already been crossed in some areas and are calling for an immediate official declaration. It would draw global attention to the disaster, mobilize much-needed foreign aid and save lives.

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

What is famine?

Famine is declared in an area where there is already severe hunger and where people are starving to death because they do not have enough healthy food.

According to the UN, the affected area must meet three conditions:

  1. At least 20 percent of the population suffers from extreme food shortages
  2. At least 30 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition
  3. Every day at least 2 out of 10,000 inhabitants die of hunger or a combination of severe hunger and disease

Why is Somalia facing famine?

Climate change is the main cause, aid workers say. Somalia – and parts of neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya – are facing the fifth rainy season in a row.

The hunger has been exacerbated by the rising cost of grain, fuel and fertilizer following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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This has pushed vulnerable populations – already hit by years of insurgency by the jihadist group al Shabaab and loss of income due to the Covid-19 pandemic – to the brink of collapse.

The hunger has been exacerbated by the rising cost of grain, fuel and fertilizer following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Somalia depends on Russia and Ukraine for 90 percent of its grain. The prices of some basic products have therefore increased by 160 percent.

How is the drought affecting Somalis?

About 6.7 million people – almost half of the country’s population – are suffering from severe hunger due to the lack of rain for more than two years. It has decimated their crops and killed their cattle.

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

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

If people are dying, why isn’t famine declared?

The decision to declare a famine is usually made jointly by the local government and the UN.

A declaration of famine can be politically controversial. Governments may see it as a blemish on their reputation and an opportunity for opponents to point to failing governance and a failure to provide basic protections.

The government also fears that a declaration of famine could scare away investors.

Aid workers in Somalia say part of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s newly elected government is hesitant to declare a famine because it could erode public support and play into the hands of Al Shabaab rebels.

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

In September, Mohamud admitted that the situation in parts of Somalia was very serious.

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UN Photo/Stuart Price (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“Declaring famine is a difficult issue that not only affects its victims but also cripples development and changes perspectives,” Mohamud said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Does a famine declaration compel action?

None. The famine declaration does not impose any binding obligations on the UN, the local government or other UN member states. Rather, it serves to draw global attention to the situation and free up resources for emergency response.

When Somalia was hit by another drought in 2017, a quick response averted famine.

What are the forecasts for Somalia for the coming months?

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), the prognosis is grim. They indicate that little rain will fall in the current rainy season and is likely to continue until the next rainy season in March-May.

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

“Many people have completely lost their livelihoods and self-reliance and are heavily dependent on aid to meet their basic needs.”

This article was originally published by IPS partner Thomson Reuters News Foundation.

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