Famine in Somalia


FAMINE IS a loaded word. The UN definition is based on acute malnutrition among children under five reaching more than 30 per cent, and deaths from hunger reaching two people per 10,000 every day. Last week the UN declared that point had been reached in two areas of southern Somalia.

The cold arithmetic of a crisis which the UN estimates may already have claimed tens of thousands of lives is made real by the shocking images from inside Somalia – emaciated children with distended bellies, bulbous eyes, and heads that look too big for their wasting bodies.

The world cannot say it was not warned. Taking its cue from the early warning systems set up in the wake of Ethiopia’s 1984-1985 famine, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has been issuing alerts for the Horn of Africa since last year, warning of a slow-burning crisis caused by drought, rocketing food prices and conflict. In recent months, the alerts grew more urgent. Yet few were listening and donor appeals fell short.

The result is a crisis that now reaches right across the region, from Somalia to Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. More than 11 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Such is the number of children at risk of starvation in Somalia that Unicef has described the situation there as the “children’s famine”.

The Government yesterday announced that it would provide a further €1 million towards emergency food aid in Somalia, bringing Ireland’s total funding for relief efforts across the Horn of Africa this year to almost €7 million. But, as former Irish president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson noted during an emotional visit to Somalia last week, the response from some wealthy, developed countries has been shamefully inadequate. The UN appeals still face a shortfall of almost €700 million.

The challenge of addressing Somalia’s famine is not just a financial one. It is no coincidence that the regional drought which has triggered food shortages in Kenya and Ethiopia has become a famine in pockets of Somalia alone. The most stricken areas are those controlled by al-Shabaab, the Islamist militias affiliated with al-Qaeda. Last year they stopped the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) from delivering aid. Recently, al-Shabaab had appeared to be willing to relax the ban, but last week, after accusing the UN of exaggerating the crisis for political ends, they insisted it remain in place.

A handful of aid organisations, including Concern, Trócaire and Oxfam, have continued to operate on the ground in Somalia through local partners, but the scale of the crisis requires the heft of an agency like the WFP.

The crisis engulfing the Horn of Africa should prompt the international community to tackle the structural issues that contribute to food insecurity in Africa and elsewhere, particularly as changing weather patterns and climate change are likely to mean more droughts. For now, however, the world should realise its moral imperative to save lives and avoid further catastrophe in Somalia.