Luke Dray for NPR
MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia typically has two rainy seasons per year. The first, called the Gu the rains usually start at the end of March or April and last until June. The second round of rains, known as Deyr, generally produce less precipitation and arrive in October or November.
But Somalia’s last four rainy seasons have failed. And there is a fear that the current Deir the rains, which most years end in early January, can also fail.
The UN warns that next year almost half of Somalia’s population could be in what it calls a “critical food crisis”, with full starvation conditions in some of the hardest hit parts of the country. The effects of a two-year drought – considered the worst in 40 years – are being felt across the East African country, home to some 17 million people.
“Livestock are dying. Cereal harvests are poor,” said Petroc Wilton, spokesman for the World Food Program in Somalia. “There is a huge hunger crisis hitting the country right now.”
Millions of Somalis are hungry, he says.
Children suffer from severe malnutrition and wasting
In Mogadishu, the capital, the pediatric wards of Banadir public hospital are full of malnourished children. Some are bloated from a severe form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor.
“Right now, we are looking at maybe 1.8 million acutely malnourished children” in the coming months, warns Victor Chinyama, spokesperson for UNICEF in Somalia. “About half a million of them are at risk of dying because they suffer from a more severe form of malnutrition called wasting.”
Luke Dray for NPR
Two-year-old Deeqle Ibrahim is one of them. He’s so thin his eyes are sunken in their sockets. He has become so weak that hospital staff have to feed him through a tube.
“Since the long starvation he has lost all his muscle, his fat. He can’t swallow properly,” says Dr Mohamed Yasin Hirey, standing beside the emaciated boy’s bedside in the intensive care unit for pediatric malnutrition. “This child is two years old and his weight is only 5.4 [kilograms]” – just under 12 pounds. “That’s the weight of a normal two-month-old child.”
The fight for survival
The doctor says Deeqle should weigh two to three times as much. Deegle’s mother, Meral Ibrahim, sits next to him on the bed. She fans her son with her shawl. Ibrahim says he fell ill almost a month ago with severe diarrhoea, fever and vomiting. He became thinner and thinner. Finally, she says, she made the 60-mile journey with him from their village to Mogadishu, to seek help.
Hirey says his unit is seeing more and more cases of emaciation like Deeqle’s.
“Over the past six months, the number of cases has increased dramatically,” he says.
As long as children don’t have other complications like cholera, measles or tuberculosis, he says they respond well to treatment, which includes nasal feeding tubes, intravenous drips, antibiotics and milk special formula with high nutrient content.
Hirey says Banadir hospital admits around 20 malnourished children a day. The malnutrition intensive care unit has six beds, all of which were full on December 12, the day of NPR’s visit. Some patients who are better than Deeqle stay on an adjacent ward. Other malnourished children are treated in an outpatient clinic. Their caregivers receive a high-calorie peanut-based supplement called Plumpy’Nut, which can help children regain weight quickly.
Climate change, militancy, COVID and the war in Ukraine are making this crisis worse
Adding to the crisis, the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab is blocking international relief efforts in areas of Somalia it controls.
The crop failures came as fighting between the government and al-Shabaab forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis to seek basic food aid and shelter in camps set up for the internally displaced. . UNICEF estimates that the current drought has displaced more than 1.1 million people.
And there were plenty of other challenges: a locust infestation that destroyed crops in 2020, the COVID pandemic, and the war in Ukraine, which drove up food prices.
Climate change is also taking its toll. Somalia has suffered from droughts throughout its history, Chinyama says with UNICEF, but now they are more frequent.
“So, for example, now in 2022 we have a drought. The last one was in 2017,” he says. “And if you remember in 2011 there was a famine in which around 260,000 people lost their lives.”
In the short term, Chinyama says agencies like his are focusing on Somalia’s current food crisis. But they are also looking for ways for the country to adapt to a new reality in which rainfall is becoming less predictable than ever.
For now, with shorter intervals between droughts, Somalis have less time to rebuild their decimated livestock herds, less time to restore crops – and less time to recover before the next disaster.