Is Somalia Facing a Famine?

Without swift donor action and a reevaluation of food aid distribution, Somalia may once again be facing a widespread food security crisis.

According to the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 1 million Somalis are internally displaced, and over 875,000 are in acute need of food aid. During a visit to Somalia in early July, Ted Chaiban, the Director of Emergency Programmes for UNICEF, stated that 200,000 of these 875,000 severely malnourished individuals are children.

The food security situation is expected to deteriorate in the coming months as minimal harvests are brought in after a year of poor seasonal rains. Food prices are already inflated, and rates of malnourishment across the country are rising.  If current trends continue, this could become a famine–which is a specific designation invoked by the United Nations when certain thresholds are reached on specific indicators like child mortality.

Somalia experienced a famine in 2011 that resulted in the death of 250,000 people, half of them children. While the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the UN Development Programme were each active in providing monitoring and assistance during the 2011 famine, their efforts were hindered by Somalia’s fragmented security situation. The distribution of food aid was fraught with difficulty, as all foreign aid organizations struggled to gain access to famine victims and effectively monitor food aid deliveries in areas controlled by the militant group, al Shabaab. al Shabaab rejected international food aid throughout the famine, but lost credibility and popular support as Somalis died.

Somalia’s new government, which was inaugurated in 2012, recently called the food crisis a “precursor to the situation in 2011 in its intensity.” OCHA’s Operations Director, John Ging, reaffirmed the idea during his July 2014 visit to Somalia, stating “All the signs we saw before 2011’s severe famine are here – reduced humanitarian access, insecurity, increasing food prices, delayed rains and rapidly worsening malnutrition among children.”

Also similar to the famine of 2011 is the renewed presence of al Shabaab militants, who have been carrying out continued attacks across Somalia, including repeated attacks on the capital of Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab presence in Mogadishu and the deteriorating security situation across the country have already made it difficult for aid organizations to reach those in need of food aid in militant-controlled areas. In fact, in a report released July 24, 2014, OCHA reported the “highest deterioration” is in Mogadishu, where over 350,000 individuals are in acute need of food aid.

The OCHA report also highlights to gap between the 2014 Somalia Strategic Response Plan funding request for $933 million and the available funds that have thus far been collected. So far, only $268 million has been received – only 29% of the total request. A UN emergency fund has also allocated over $21 million to support emergency humanitarian work in Somalia.

What can be done to stave off a famine? For one, the funding gap needs to close. These funds pay for the food aid and other essential humanitarian relief that can keep people alive while prices are high and food is inaccessible.  Also, humanitarian organizations need to find mechanisms to work with al Shabaab to secure humanitarian access to areas under their control. Right now, there is an estimated 350,000 people in Mogadishu alone who are in areas controlled by al Shebab.

If al Shebab refuses to grant humanitarian access, the international community should consider utilizing military action to create humanitarian corridors to access the food insecure. In 2011, the famine only broke when Kenyan forces supported a UN and African Union-backed effort to defeat al Shabaab in Somalia

While the situation in Somalia is bleak, the international community’s decisive action, effective fundraising, and internalization of lessons from the past can ensure that Somalia does not face another famine. But the clock is ticking.