Last week I was in Somaliland in the Horn of Africa where a severe drought risks becoming a famine. We know how generous the British public can be faced with harrowing pictures of starving babies. The humanitarian challenge is how do you get donors and the public to match that generosity when it a question of intervening to stop a drought becoming a famine?
In 2011-2012 some 260,000 people died in a devastating famine in southern Somalia – a crisis that had been predicted almost a year earlier. This year the focus of concern is Ethiopia and Somaliland – the self-declared independent territory in north-eastern Somalia that I have just returned from.
Following two years of below average and erratic rainfall, Somaliland is in the grip of a food crisis. Will famine be allowed to creep up unchallenged on the communities affected once again, or will the international community take decisive action this time?
The evidence of my own eyes in Somaliland is not encouraging. In contrast to recent visits I have made to Calais and the Greek island of Lesbos, aid agencies are relatively thin on the ground and the provision of what people urgently require – food, water and shelter – falls well short of what is needed. My hosts were charities associated with the Muslim Charities Forum – Islamic Relief, Muslim Hands, Human Appeal, Charity Right and the African Relief Fund – all keen to highlight this mounting crisis.
In Awdal region, near Somaliland’s north-western border with Ethiopia, we visited camps where more than 1,200 hungry men, women and children had gathered. Their only shelter is rough bivouac structures they have made themselves – bits of fabric and plastic draped over sticks, providing minimum privacy and protection from the elements.
Pastoralists make up two-thirds of those affected – families who traditionally travel with their livestock across wide areas of Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti to find the best pasture according to the seasons. In all three countries their cherished pasture lands are dry and barren. Animals are dying in their thousands, and the people who depend on them have started starving to death too.
The frequency and severity of droughts in East Africa is increasing as climate change bites. The carbon footprint of the poorest communities is tiny, yet they are paying the price for the failure of richer countries to cut emissions.
The first signs of life we encountered as we travelled to the affected area were emaciated animals – desperately skinny goats too weak to stand. Travelling further, the road was lined with the carcases of dead goats. Beside the newly emerging camps we saw mass graves where thousands of goats, sheep, cows and even drought-resilient camels are being buried in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease.
We spoke to families who had 500 or more animals three months ago, and now are left with 20 or fewer. For people who rely on their animals for meat, milk and trade, it’s the equivalent of losing your entire life savings.
In a drought like this rainfall should be a blessing, but the rains that have just started are providing little relief. Any new crops that can be sown will not yield any food for several months, while more immediately water-borne diseases are on the increase.
There are also reports of people drowning in flash floods, and I can understand why. After driving over several dry, cracked river beds to reach one of the furthest camps, we encountered sudden torrential rain. In minutes one of the riverbeds became a fast-flowing river, engulfing three jeeps in our convoy – with no casualties, fortunately.
So far, the government of Somaliland has raised a paltry $1.5 million to help more than 10,000 people whose livestock have been wiped out. With more support and funding, the resilient people of Somaliland can not only stave off famine but also invest in what is needed in the longer term, including reseeding and protection of pastures, improved farming practices and the provision of stoves and cookers that reduce the need to chop down trees for fuel.
The latest UN assessment estimates that 4.7 million people – nearly 40 per cent of Somalia’s population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly one million of these people are going hungry, struggling daily to feed themselves and their families. In Somaliland and Puntland 385,000 people are already facing a severe food crisis, with another 1.3 million at risk if they do not receive help soon.
The UN and international aid agencies have launched a $100 million appeal for Somalia but only 36 per cent of this total has been delivered so far.
In dealing with drought, and avoiding the mistakes of 2011, time is of the essence. Now is the time for the international community, and our own Department for International Development, to respond. How many lives must be lost before we decide to act?