In Somalia, four rainy seasons have failed to arrive, leaving the land desiccated and people starving. But drought alone is not enough to cause these numbers. A perfect storm of factors is setting the stage for a monumental human tragedy that most of the world is ignoring.
BAIDOA — When Oray Adan arrived in Baidoa six months ago, she was pregnant, exhausted and undernourished to the point of not even having the strength to eat. Drought had dried out the land in the village of Bakal Yere, in Somalia, where she and her husband had been farmers. But the drought had condemned their livestock to death and driven the family to starvation. In the month before she fled, three of their four children had died from hunger and diseases that, if they had lived practically anywhere else, would have been easily treated with simple antibiotics.
To save her surviving two-year-old son and the one she was carrying, Oray Adan walked two weeks and reached the nearest urban center in desperate need of care, water and food. She arrived in Baidoa, a city in south-central Somalia, and was referred to a medical center for malnourished children. She was skeletal, as was the child she held by the hand—a thinness that lingers even now, stretching to her now four-month old newborn, Shukri Mohamed, who should weigh eight pounds, but weighs only two.
Oray Adan clutches him in her arms with the care given to fragile things, as if he might expire at any moment. She is wrapped in a robe that covers her from face to feet, and through which her bony body intermittently pokes through—enough to reveal dry arms, a gaunt face hollowed out by tuberculosis, hunger, and sorrow.
Global food crisis
“I have lost everything,” she says. Even, it seems, the words to say much more than that. She repeats it, and then clutches the baby between her forearm and her chest, rocks him gently—a universal gesture of those who hope that body heat will soothe a baby’s crying and quench their hunger—then lays him on the bed at the city's Stabilization Center.
This is where children at a stage of severe malnutrition arrive. In October last year, 122 were hospitalized. Twelve months later, in October 2022, there were 809, one of the many signs of the humanitarian emergency that is sweeping the country. Without the immediate deployment of resources, humanitarian agencies warn that the crisis could become unprecedented in size and lethality.
Four rainy seasons have failed to arrive.
The numbers are frightening: according to U.N. figures, 7 million people are affected by drought and face severe food shortages, 1.5 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition, and 1.2 million people have left everything behind in just a few months to seek food and water in urban centers.
In Somalia, four rainy seasons have failed to arrive, and a fifth is now failing as well. This means that land has been desiccated for almost three years, starving animals and people. But drought alone is not enough to cause these numbers. Somalia is once again a victim of the combined effects of climate change, a global food crisis, and the war that has been raging through the country for 30 years—with the jihadist group Al Shabaab controlling vast rural areas, besieging villages and towns, and threatening civilians and aid workers.
Russia's invasion reaches the Horn of Africa
It’s a perfect storm that is bringing Somalia to the brink of a new famine. Repeated United Nations warnings have achieved little. Last December, when Russia's invasion of Ukraine had not yet begun, the Horn of Africa was already dealing with the consequences of a fourth waterless rainy season. The United Nations had issued repeated warnings that hunger levels had been catastrophic “for more than a year,” urging countries to act before not after a declaration of famine. But the alerts have been largely ignored, and less than half of the requested, and pledged, money has been sent.
In the year that followed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has diverted attention as well as financial aid. At the end of November, a fifth rainy season has now failed to produce sufficient precipitation. As a result, hundreds of thousands of hollow-faced, hungry farmers and herders are abandoning the countryside and flocking towards cities like Baidoa.
Over the past three decades, Baidoa has witnessed Somalia's slow descent into chaos. Once considered the country's breadbasket, it earned the title "city of death" during the years of civil war. During the 1992 famine, one-third of its inhabitants died of starvation and hardship. In the most terrible month of the siege, trucks drove through the streets retrieving bodies, and in the city's only orphanage ten to fifteen children a day were dying of starvation.
On paper, Baidoa is still controlled by the government forces, but it is surrounded by Islamist militants from Al Shabaab and can only be supplied by air. Bringing aid here is increasingly difficult; there are few commercial flights, in addition to UN flights from Mogadishu. A curfew for foreigners goes into effect at 3:00 pm, and one can only move around with armored cars and a substantial armed escort.
A doctor at a clinic in Somalia examines a baby amid hunger crisis in the country
Memories of 1992 and 2011
Those who arrive here from the countryside have walked for days, carrying exhausted children. They are ghosts from a past where common wisdom was to “act while you can, act before you count the dead by the hundreds of thousands.”
Somalia has experienced two famines before: in 1992 and 2011, resulting in at least half a million deaths. "The numbers and the degree of malnutrition we are seeing in children today is exactly the same as in 2011," says Mohamed Osman Wehliye, the doctor in charge of Baidoa’s Stabilization Center, which is run by Save the Children.
He is in his early 30s and was born and raised here. He remembers the deaths of 1992 and 2011 because he was there—today, faced with a besieged city, insufficient aid, multiplying hospitalizations, and the sheer statistics he only says, “I didn't think it would happen again.”
For months Wehliye has been watching mothers like Oray Adan arrive. They knock on the door, tell him they haven't fed their children for three, four, maybe five days. Each time does what he must and what he can—oxygen, antibiotics, therapeutic food—and each night he goes home wondering who will get worse the next day, whether there will be enough medicine for everyone, who will be the next mother to knock on the center's door, and whether he will be able to save her children.
Sometimes, when he is treating very serious cases, he even spends the night at the clinic to look after the children. "My children," he calls them, hoping not to have to add one more number to the ever-growing death statistics.
What constitutes a famine?
For a “state of famine” to be officially declared would require one-third of the children in the region to be severely malnourished, one-fifth of the population to have no access to food, and two deaths from hunger for every 10,000 people occurring every day.
Dr. Wehliye says the famine is already here and too much time is being wasted, like the last time, in 2011, when half of the more than 250,000 victims died before a famine was officially declared. Of them, 125,000 were children.
He walks along the walls where figures and percentages are hung. He says that those who arrive here, emaciated, consumed by hunger, are still in the pool of the fortunate. They can be counted, therefore they are alive. Better than being invisible. In fact, there is a lack of data regarding those who cannot leave the areas controlled by al Shabaab, where not only does humanitarian aid not come in, but the real numbers of the dead do not come out.
These are deaths that slip under the radar because here too, as in Ukraine and in Syria, hunger is a weapon of war. Those who are dying today are invisible, and tomorrow, when the parameters for getting the label of famine will have already been surpassed by events, they will be faceless statistics.
Does the color of skin determine compassion?
That is why Dr. Wehliye says that famine is known by those who experience it, not by those who observe it from afar. He enters rooms, visits children, weighs them, feels their pulse and breath. He knows that here in Somalia, people die of measles because vaccines do not reach remote areas, and by the time children arrive with red eyes and scarred skin, it is too late—within days, they die of an infectious disease that is eradicated in Europe.
"Their lives are worth less than others," he spells out, syllable after syllable, in the hallway of the Stabilization Center. "The difference is in color. You are Westerners, these children are Africans. It's called discrimination."
It is the color of the skin that determines compassion, Wehliye says. The women's eyes are dry, like the earth and like the fields, dry like the streams, dry because they are sick, because their bodies are dehydrated, because they have run out of tears after losing one child to starvation and another to measles. The rest of the world remains turned away, because it knows that looking into these dried-up faces would nail them to collective responsibility, to taking charge of a common, shared, urgent humanity. Lying on mattresses, wrinkled-skinned Somali children weep tears that are identical in every corner of the planet. They are the tears of the hungry.
In the meantime, the world waits for the numbers of deaths to meet the criteria, the technical thresholds to define famine. At that point, only at that point, will they act. But at that point even these lives will have become ghosts.