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In the 2021 Global Hunger Index, Somalia was ranked as the hungriest country in the world with an “extremely alarming” level of hunger.
At 59.5%, the country’s prevalence of undernourishment was the highest of any country with available data (with the second-highest country, Central African Republic, more than 10 percentage points lower). We weren’t able to access sufficient data for Somalia in 2022’s Global Hunger Index. However, this doesn’t mean that the situation improved over the intervening year.
In fact, things are getting worse, owing to conflict, inflation, climate change, and the net effects of the worst drought seen in the Horn of Africa (which includes Somalia as well as Ethiopia and Kenya) in decades. Here’s what you need to know about hunger in Somalia, including why the situation has become so dire, what the projections are for 2023, and how you can help.
What’s causing hunger in Somalia?
Despite a focus on the Horn of Africa drought at the moment, there isn’t one singular cause for Somalia’s current hunger crisis. In fact, this is one of the reasons that famine-like conditions are being seen in the country.
Many of these causes collide together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Here are the six main points:
The current drought across the Horn of Africa has led to dramatic increases in food insecurity. However, this drought hasn’t happened in isolation.
Over the last 12 years, Somalia has seen three “worst droughts in decades,” beginning in 2010-11 (the worst the country had seen in 60 years). Those seasons of failed rains led to the country declaring famine, which cost the lives of approximately 260,000 people between 2010 and 2012. Over half of these fatalities were children under the age of 5.
Since then, Somalia has only had one season with adequate rainfall (in 2013) and several subsequent droughts. In 2017, it dodged another famine amid another “worst drought in decades.” Many of the families who were hit hard by that drought were still recovering their lost assets from that time when the latest drought began to escalate.
Like Somalia’s timeline of droughts, its protracted history of conflict has had an impact on its citizens - particularly the most vulnerable - that has increased exponentially over time. Since 1981, the country has experienced periods of violence and civil conflict. The resulting four decades of instability have weakened the country’s health system and left other key areas of infrastructure undermined. This also means that the government’s ability to respond to emergencies like the current drought is limited.
With many areas of the country not under government control, this also poses a challenge to NGOs when it comes to delivering food aid and other forms of assistance. As Concern Somalia country director Abdi Rashid Haji-Nur explains:
“Operationally, it is difficult for national and international humanitarian agencies to deliver services to people in the different parts of the country. As long as there is absence of efforts to contain and to deescalate those tensions and conflicts, we will be having challenges in terms of having access.”
3. Climate change
The increase in both the number and intensity of droughts in Somalia is linked to the effects of climate change.
Before 1999, droughts happened roughly every five years. Their rate has more than doubled since then, which scientists have linked to the climate crisis.
However this isn’t the only way the climate crisis has impacted the country. In 2019, for example, flooding in both the Juba and Shabelle rivers affected over half a million people, destroying crops and land used for grazing. This is especially devastating for a country in which 75% of its residents live in rural areas, relying on farming and livestock for their livelihoods.
4. Forced migration and displacement
Both conflict and climate change have left nearly 3 million Somali people internally displaced. Many have left their drought-struck rural areas in search of food, water, and other forms of assistance not to be found closer to home.
Unfortunately, with nearly 20% of the population displaced, this means that even in Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps and communities, there often isn’t enough to go around. Competition for resources is high, and often devastating.
5. Two major events of 2020 - and one in 2022
Both COVID-19 and the desert locust crisis of 2019 and 2020 had large impacts on Somalia’s food system. The upsurge of desert locusts in the country was declared an emergency in February 2020, and Somalia was one of the countries most affected by the 1.3 million hectares of infestations across 10 countries. In the region of Somaliland alone, approximately 300,000 hectares of land were affected in 2020, which in turn affected the food security of about 200,000 people. It was only in February of this year that the crisis was declared “over.”
Early COVID-19 related lockdowns affected response to the desert locust crisis, delaying the delivery of supplies and aid. While Somalia has had very few confirmed cases of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, the long-term economic effects have also contributed to the current hunger crisis.
Likewise, the conflict in Ukraine has affected hunger in Somalia, which traditionally relies on Ukraine and Russia for many of its wheat imports.
These recent restrictions on imports have caused the prices of food in Somalia to skyrocket. The World Food Programme reports that staple food prices in the areas of Somalia affected by the drought are now higher than they were during the 2017 drought and 2011 famine. At the end of 2021, a 50kg bag of sorghum cost $8. Today, it is now $50.
“There are still a lot of imports coming in, but the question is the price of the food commodities,” says Haji-Nur.
“Because of what is happening around the world, Somalia is in a very vulnerable position. Maybe other countries have ways to help the affected communities to keep prices manageable, but in Somalia, it is highly unlikely that anything can be done with the increasing prices of commodities.”
At the end of 2021, a 50kg bag of sorghum in Somalia cost $8. Today, it is now $50.
One of the biggest causes of hunger in Somalia isn’t happening in the country
The effects of conflict, climate, locusts, and COVID could all have been mitigated with enough early warning and action. Both local and international organisations working in Somalia (Concern included) had been aware of the likelihood that many of these recent developments - consecutive failed rains, the pandemic, and conflict in Ukraine among them - would result in higher rates of hunger, especially in the most vulnerable communities.
Despite sounding this alarm early and often, however, the action was not. Early warning is only effective if the international community steps in to invest in risk reduction and early intervention. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
In the 2021-22 fiscal year, the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office cut its foreign assistance budget by 30% due to the economic impacts of the pandemic. This placed many activities on hold, including many aimed at helping program participants build financial independence.
At the beginning of 2022, with warnings for the Horn of Africa becoming more urgent, the UN estimated that it would cost $3.7 billion to provide the most basic humanitarian support to those affected by drought across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.
However, by the middle of 2022, the Somalia appeal was just 27% funded. By December 2022, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) announced an anticipated scale-down in humanitarian assistance to Somalia beginning in April of this year due to insufficient funding. If this comes to pass, the organisation estimates an additional 1.2 million Somalis will face emergency levels of hunger by June.
Hunger in Somalia: What’s next?
As of this writing, the Somali government has yet to declare famine, although at least two districts in the country’s Bay region are estimated to have been dealing with the key conditions of famine since last September. It’s possible that other parts of the country are dealing with similar conditions, however security issues prevent adequate data from being collected.
Meanwhile, as Haji-Nur told us earlier this year, one of the main concerns is the purchasing power of those most affected by inflation and drought. “Although you have food in the market, the ability of people in those areas to buy or get access to that food is very limited. And that’s where we come in, in providing cash so that the people can buy food from markets.”
Addressing this current hunger crisis will also mean having to address many of the crises supporting food insecurity, which is going to take a lot more than food aid and disaster risk reduction strategies.
As Haji-Nur explains, many of the effects of the last few years have piled up and become a network of challenges: “This is more than a normal drought when you combine with COVID-19’s impact, and the significant increase in food and fuel prices. When you combine all those, it is more than just a drought impact. You had a drought that has been slowly killing animals and then one harvest failure after the other, and this is where we are right now.”
“This is more than a normal drought when you combine with COVID-19’s impact, and the significant increase in food and fuel prices."
How to help Somalia
Concern has been in Somalia for over 35 years, and our emergency response team provides a multi-sector response to drought, flood and displacement-affected households across the country.
A key pillar of our response, as Haji-Nur mentioned, is unconditional cash transfers delivered through mobile phones. These enable families to quickly receive money to buy what they most need from local markets to feed their family and meet other basic needs (shopping locally also helps their local economy and supports their friends’ and neighbours’ businesses).
Our nutrition centres in Mogadishu and its surrounding areas are currently supporting around 2,600 children per month, though Haji-Nur estimates that this will soon go up to over 3,000 per month as cases of malnutrition continue to rise. Last year, we saw a 97% cure rate on all cases treated.
You can help our lifesaving work in Somalia by donating to Concern using the link below.