Drought Is Pushing Somalia Toward Catastrophic Famine

MAccording to shocking figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNA) and Norwegian Refugee Council, more than 1,000,000 people in Somalia have been forced out of their homes by drought. The majority of them—some 775,000—were displaced this year as the country of 16 million grapples with a drought that began in January 2021. It’s Somalia’s worst one in decades, forcing people from rural areas to flee to cities in search of food and water.

This environmental catastrophe is a devastating blow to a country struggling with political instability and a long-running civil war. As the primary source of income for over 80% of the country’s population, crops are failing and millions of livestock have died. This leaves 5 million people in danger of starvation. Adam Abdelmoula from the U.N., who is Somalia’s humanitarian coordinator, stated that in June, thousands of Somalians died.

As famine continues to loom amid the possibility of yet another drought, most people are not paying attention. Experts tell TIME that, rather than view the drought as a domestic issue, the international community should see it as a harbinger of more to come—that the climate emergency will continue to have disproportionate effects on the Global South and jeopardize global security.

“Now we have a weather pattern [in Somalia] that is increasingly erratic, with less rain in the last decade, and flooding when there is rain,” says Mohamed Abdi, NRC’s Somalia country director. “And climate change means the situation is only going to get worse.”

Conflict in Ukraine only exacerbates the situation. Somalia imported $17.7 Million of grain in 2020. Most of that came from Russia or Ukraine. Food prices have soared due to the disruption in grain supply caused by war, which has made it harder to replace food that was once supplied by livestock with wheat. Relief Web International estimates that more than 7,000,000 people will be facing hunger crises by September.

Claire McConnell is a climate policy advisor at E3G in London. She says that the conflict in Ukraine has brought to light a long-standing food security crisis. “Many countries in the Global South were already really struggling with prices for certain commodities in part due to supply chain disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, but mostly due to the climate impacts in crop-producing countries,” she says.

The drought in Somalia demonstrates how the climate crisis acts like a “threat multiplier,” McConnell says, with knock-on effects on human life, livelihoods, agriculture, industry and even national security.

In the meantime, militants exploit the drought to increase their hold on the East African country. Large swathes, controlled by the al-Qaeda-allied al-Shabab, of southern and central Somalia are under their control, making it impossible for international aid agencies to reach nearly 900,000 Somalis who need assistance. To strengthen rural support, militias are reportedly demanding payments from aid agencies to distribute food.

This is also complicating Washington’s mission in Somalia. U.S. President Joe Biden in May ordered the return of nearly 500 troops to support the fight against al-Shabab, after the election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as Somalia’s President ended a political vacuum of more than a year.

Learn More Biden is Redeploying Troops to Somalia

E3G’s McConnell draws a comparison to the 2011 Arab uprisings, where rising food prices caused by political instability and extreme weather triggered a wave of social unrest.

Abdi says that the crisis is only going to get worse if the international community continues to ignore it. “Even though as humanitarian organizations we have been talking about it for months now, the resources have been very slow to come,” he adds. Washington promised an additional $476million in humanitarian aid for Somalia in July. However, the U.N. estimates that it requires $1.5 billion in order to alleviate poverty and hunger.

Experts believe that investing in the Global South for the long term is equally important than short-term aid, because climate change will accelerate the intensity and frequency of these environmental crises. Somalia “needs funding to support communities in building resilience,” Abdi adds, “to grow crops that are resilient to the extreme weather patterns, and build water infrastructures in case of rain season failure.”

The 27th U.N. Climate Change Conference due to be hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November will put the commitments made by rich nations at last year’s COP26 conference to the test, McConnell says. “A lot of local communities [in the Global South] already have some of the skills and the knowledge to help adapt to some of these climate impacts, but are often lacking the finance or the support to scale that.”

But the millions of people in Somalia facing starvation can’t afford to wait until then. “If we don’t do anything in the coming weeks and months, I’m afraid we will see more deaths,” Abdi says. “Somalia has become the forgotten crisis, and the world needs to pay attention.”

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