Explained | How grave is the drought emergency in Somalia?

A joint statement by the U.N. FAO, OCHA, UNICEF and WFP stated that nearly six million people in Somalia — roughly 40% of its population — are now facing extreme levels of food insecurity with pockets of famine conditions in certain areas.

April 19, 2022 04:14 pm | Updated 04:14 pm IST

In this file photo taken on February 13, 2022 Hawa Mohamed Isack (R), 60, drinks water at a water distribution point at Muuri camp, one of the 500 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in town, in Baidoa, Somalia.

In this file photo taken on February 13, 2022 Hawa Mohamed Isack (R), 60, drinks water at a water distribution point at Muuri camp, one of the 500 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in town, in Baidoa, Somalia. | Photo Credit: AFP

Rains in Somalia have ‘faltered’ for three consecutive seasons, with some areas experiencing it on as many as four occasions till date. The ensuing drought has exposed Somalia to famine-like conditions accompanied by skyrocketing food prices and huge funding shortfalls.  

Calling for urgent humanitarian assistance for the country, United Nations Resident & Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia Adam Abdelmoula, in March,  said: “As we speak now, 1.4 million children under five years of age are severely malnourished [in Somalia], and if we don’t step up our intervention, it is projected that 350,000 of them will perish by the summer of this year. The situation cannot be more dire than that.”  

On April 12, similar concerns were echoed in a joint statement of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and World Food Programme (WFP). They sought an immediate injection of funds to scale up lifesaving assistance in Somalia, adding that the recent events had exposed nearly 40% of the Somalian population to the risk of a famine.  

The impact of the drought was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic political turbulence, and large-scale displacement of people to ‘better-off’ areas within the country. As per the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit’s (FSNAU) estimates, 4.1 million people in Somalia would require urgent humanitarian assistance between February and June 2022.  

How did we reach here? 

The country in the Horn of Africa has been struggling with multi-season drought since late 2020. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification’s (IPC) latest report says persistent insecurity, conflict, and unresolved political tensions, particularly in central and southern Somalia, accompanied by global supply and price shocks are exacerbating the food security situation.  

Watch | What is happening in the ‘Horn of Africa’?

Somalia experiences two bouts of rainfall — between September/October and December in the Deyr season, and the Gu season between April and June.  

The FSNAU notes that the 2021 Deyr season started late, ended early, and had an erratic distribution. The cumulative rainfall was 40-60% below average across most parts of southern, central, and adjacent parts of northern Somalia. This resulted in massive crop failures in central Somalia, below-average crop production in southern and north-western Somalia, and the third-lowest Dyer harvest since 1995 in southern Somalia. Cereal production in southern Somalia is estimated at 42,700 tonnes for the season, 58% below the 1995-2020 average.  

The United States’ Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Famine Early Warnings System (FEWS.net) described the season as being “among the worst deyr seasons on the historical record (1981-2020)”. It added that the harvest season led to increased migration in search of food, water and pasture, spurring pressure and depletion of resources in less drought-affected areas.  

This was followed by the dry and harsh Jillal season between January and March this year, compounding the aftereffects of the failed Dyer season. IPC stated in its report for the east African country that households faced water shortages, limited milk availability, and a lack of saleable animals as they were dying of starvation, with the body conditions of the surviving livestock detoriating. 

The Federal Government of Somalia had declared a state of emergency on November 23 the previous year and made urgent calls for international assistance. This was followed by the country’s Vice-Presidential office on January 13 declaring the drought a national emergency in Somaliland, OCHA informs.  

The near-term outlook 

Food security: World Meteorological Center-accredited climate services provider ICPAC says, “If the upcoming March-April-May (MAM) rain season fails, this would lead to a historic four-season drought that would suppress critical food and income sources through mid- to-late 2022.”  

It added that average rainfalls would not lead to any immediate recovery. Moreover, the ongoing crisis would further intensify until the rains commence. “February to March is the pastoral lean season, and mid-April to June is the agricultural lean season, and further peaks in food insecurity are expected in these months,” the ICPAC noted.  

The OCHA states that humanitarian assistance is presently mitigating the severity of food insecurity; however, taking into account the rise in dependent population, it could outpace current and planned assistance levels. IPC adds that the impact on production and supply chains owing to the conflict in Ukraine could further push food prices upward. 

Pastoralists: Poor pastoralists in Somalia are unable to cope with rising costs of water and food and, in turn, keep their livestock in shape. The FSNAU states that with fewer livestock births expected in the current calendar year, reduced income from their sales, and low availability of milk for both adults and children, poor households would be subjected to large gaps in food consumption through mid-2022. This applies for agropastoral communities, too, in the event of an erratically distributed rainfall or conflict. 

Urban poor: Food consumption gaps could be the story for the urban poor as well, considering the slowdown in economic activities in urban areas and the increasing price of food and other essential items. The IPC’s report states that the urban poor’s ability to absorb the impact of further rise in food prices is limited. As per its estimates, they presently spend 60-80% of their income on food. “Declining labour wages and rising food prices have led to sharp declines in the terms of trade between wage labour and cereals, in some cases, by as much as 50%. As a result, the urban poor face moderate to large food consumption gaps through mid-2022,” the report states. 

Population displacement: Worsening drought conditions and persistent food insecurity could lead to increased displacement from rural to urban areas and existing settlements through mid-2022, in case humanitarian assistance is not adequately scaled up. This would result in displaced people experiencing moderate to large consumption gaps through mid-2022. 

As per OCHA, more than 572,000 people have been displaced internally due to the drought between October 2021 and February 2022 — almost double the figure for the comparable period in 2016-17.  

Measles outbreak 

The OCHA informs that health authorities have observed a measles outbreak in Somalia.  

About 2,000 suspected cases were reported in February, compared to 1,535 suspected cases in January. At least nine related deaths were reported from the Jubalanad state.  

Overcrowded settlements of the displaced populations, poor water and sanitary conditions could result in further outbreaks of measles and acute watery diarrhoea (AWD), affecting mostly children under five years of age. “Under this scenario, levels of acute malnutrition could rapidly increase to 30 percent or more Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) which is one of the thresholds for Famine (IPC Phase 5) classification,” IPC adds.  

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