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Humanitarian Watch

Somalia Is On The Brink Of Famine, And Time Is Running Out

PHOTO BY MOHAMED SHEIKH NOR FOR CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES

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MOGADISHU, Somalia ― When Nunay Abdi’s last goat died and her small piece of land dried up, she set out for the city with her six children in search of food and water. By the time she reached the southwestern town of Baidoa, some 60 miles from her village on foot, the 45-year-old single mother realized that two of her children were missing.

In a state of delirium from hunger and thirst, she couldn’t tell if she had forgotten them somewhere along the way, or worse, lost them to dehydration and starvation. The worried mother waited in a camp for displaced Somalis for two weeks for news of her children, aged 4 to 16 years old.

She eventually reconnected with them, but the youngest passed away soon after from severe malnutrition.

Abdi’s story isn’t unique ― there are many more like her here in Somalia, where conflict and climate change have wreaked havoc and brought the country to the brink of famine. And if things continue in this fashion, life for those like Abdi will get worse before it gets better.

The centre is busy with mothers queuing to receive the peanut paste, and children being weighed and screened. (Photo by Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Somalia is no stranger to the dangers of climate change. Rainfall has been erratic here for the past three years. And the current drought comes on the heels of a famine in 2011 that killed over 250,000, most of whom were women and children.

Back then, we responded too late. Death came for many before famine was even declared. The lives lost were a tragic price to pay for our collective inaction. Today, the warning signs are here again. This country could soon face its third famine in a quarter of a century.

Drought used to come once a decade and only in parts of Somalia. Now, the conditions are more regular ― about every other year. The current dry spell is affecting the whole country, with experts fearing it could be more deadly than the last, so deadly it could lead to total collapse. And climate change is wearing down Somalia’s ability to cope. A state of emergency has been declared. More than 6 million people ― over half of Somalia’s population ― are in need of aid.

As their farms dry up and their cattle die, it’s impossible for people, many of whom are herders who rely on water, to escape the harsh environmental reality each day. They leave their homes, walking miles on the parched dirt in search of help. Carcasses dot the deserted landscape in their wake. To make matters worse, it’s not only drought driving people from their homes but conflict too. Many are robbed along the way, and some women have reported sexual abuse.

Devastating drought conditions around the administrative area called Bali-Shireh, about three hours’ drive south of the capital of Somaliland, Hargeisa. It’s not really a village per se, since this is a purely pastoralist area of Somaliland, very close to the border with Ethiopia

Somalia hasn’t had an effective government in two decades, creating a vacuum for militant groups and making it one of the most dangerous places to work in. In 2016, it was named the most fragile state in the world on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index. And violence and terrorism mean gaining access to the growing refugee population is a constant challenge for humanitarian workers like us.

Since November, thousands of displaced people have come to Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, where I live. This recent influx, made up of those who abandoned their homes in rural areas, join the approximately 1 million people already displaced by decades of violence in this country.

It has become common to see women and children begging in the streets of Mogadishu. As I traverse my city, I see mothers looking for help. And I see children, some the age of my own, doing the same. Many of them suffer from malnutrition ― some 1.4 million children are projected to be acutely malnourished in Somalia this year ― and clinics are few and hard to come by.

These are the lucky ones who made it to the cities after walking for days. But they are confronted with more challenges upon their arrival. Crowded conditions and a lack of sanitation make the camps and shantytowns ripe for disease, particularly cholera, which is a growing problem. The limited water tastes bad and is often contaminated, but it’s all they have.

Small tent settlements have sprung up everywhere, with some of the most populated areas resembling a desert. Colorful scraps of fabric are the only contrast to the red dirt. Too weak to walk any further, people sit listlessly in front of their makeshift shelters, staring blankly at the world around them. Humanitarians have even coined a name for them: drought dropouts.

Many have given up looking for work and stare blankly at the world around them. Humanitarians have a name for these people: drought dropouts. Photo by MOHAMED SHEIKH NOR FOR CATHOLIC RELIEF SERVICES

Salid Halima is one of them. I met her in a small village called Beled Hawa, northwest of the capital near the border with Ethiopia and Kenya. The 50-year-old woman looks after 10 emaciated cows. There were others, she told me, but she left the remaining cattle back home with her husband and now lives here with a relative and her four children.

“This is the worst drought I’ve witnessed in over 30 years,” she said, worse than the one six years ago. “It has killed most of my animals, and I am worried I might lose family members due to hunger and thirst if the conditions don’t improve soon.”

But in the drought and displacement, there is a glimmer of light. Ironically, many Somalis began this year more optimistic than they have been in decades. A new government has taken office. And though militants still control large swaths of the country, stability is returning to many areas. There is hope.

I saw it in the woman I met on the outskirts of the capital. Halima, a mother of five, started a small business after borrowing money from her community-led microfinance group. That investment shows her faith, sending a message that all is not lost ― that there is a future for Somalia. Local Somalis like her and those from the diaspora are making huge investments. The private sector is growing. But this growth needs to reach everyone, everywhere in Somalia.

We know there will be more droughts due to the changing climate. To respond to them effectively, we need better governance and long-term peace in Somalia. And we cannot afford to wait.

Families affected by drought receive ration cards for a food distribution conducted by CRS partner Caritas Hargeisa.
CRS and Caritas are responding to the crisis through out the region.
Photo by Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services

A catastrophe can still be averted, but the international community, including the United States, cannot continue to stall. The nearly $1 billion in emergency funding for famine response in the region, provided in the recently passed U.S. omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2017, is a significant step. But continued, robust foreign aid will be needed to avoid a surge in death and to prevent famine. The United Nations is requesting an additional $900 million for Somalia this year. But so far, not enough of the necessary funding has been coming in. If we wait until famine is declared like we did in 2011, thousands of lives will already be lost ― and the response will come at an exorbitant economic cost.

Instead of cutting foreign aid ― as the Trump administration suggested in its budget proposal ― the U.S. should continue to show its compassion and support. The generosity of the American people is deeply rooted in that nation’s history, and foreign assistance reflects American values. With some 20 million people on the verge of famine ― in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and parts of South Sudan ― now is not the time to walk back that generosity.

We may not be able to undo the past and bring back the more than a quarter of a million lives lost during Somalia’s last famine, but we can imagine for a moment what it would be like for our kids to go without food or water for days. No snacks. None of their favorite candies. Depending on handouts to survive or facing a situation like Nunay Abdi ― walking miles in the face of hunger and thirst only to lose a child to starvation. We can do better, and we owe it to Abdi and others in Somalia to act now before the cost of our inaction is forever engraved on the tombstones of hundreds of thousands more Somalis.

Mohamed Dahir is a program manager for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Somalia. His current role is coordinating emergency relief activities along with leading a three-year USAID funded project aimed at increasing resilience in rural communities. He is based in Mogadishu.

Humanitarian Watch

Funding al-Shabaab: How aid money ends up in terror group’s hands

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Baidoa, Somalia (CNN)The murderous al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab is making millions of dollars each year by exploiting foreign aid money sent to Somalia by the very western nations who are trying to eliminate the terror group.

A CNN investigation has revealed how money given directly by the United Nations to people displaced by conflict and famine is ending up in the hands of Africa’s oldest terrorist organization.

Former members of al-Shabaab and Somali intelligence agents said the terror group is extorting thousands of dollars per day through road blocks and taxes on merchants attempting to transport food and supplies to sell to internally displaced people in towns where they are concentrated.

People who have fled their homes and are living in a sprawling camp in the central Somali city of Baidoa are screened by the UN and issued cash cards that the UN tops up with around $80 to $90 each month, enabling them to buy essentials from local merchants.

UN officials say this direct payment system will avoid distorting local markets by flooding them with free food, and relieve the UN of the burden of running food convoys that are vulnerable to attacks and theft.

Businessmen now truck food bought on the open market to places like Baidoa, where internally displaced people (IDPs) arrive every day. But they must pay al-Shabaab, which controls the main road into the town, to move their goods.

Former members of the terror group and Somali intelligence agents said that tolls taken from trucks and other vehicles at just two al-Shabaab roadblocks on Somalia’s busiest road raked in thousands every day. The UN has estimated that a single roadblock generated about $5,000 per day on the road to Baidoa.

‘Tax’ collectors

Speaking at a secret location on the outskirts of Baidoa, a former zaqat (tax) collector for al-Shabaab, who was captured in a recent raid by agents from Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency, confirmed that the extraction of tolls at roadblocks was one of the biggest sources of money for al-Shabaab.

The two biggest sources were the road to Baidoa and the main artery which connects the capital Mogadishu with the agriculturally-rich Lower Shabelle region.

The gouging is more subtle today than it was in the early 1990s, when local warlords deliberately starved hundreds of thousands of Somalis in order to profit from international aid money. Scenes of mass death on the streets of Baidoa in 1992 provoked the United States to lead a multinational UN-backed military intervention in the same year.

In Baidoa back then, a truck known as the Death Bus collected around 100 bodies a day, all of them skeletal from starvation, from the dusty streets of the town every morning.

Aid organizations were so desperate to help that they paid warlords to permit access to starving victims. Until Western nations intervened, the warlords worked to sustain the famine in order to keep the aid money flowing into their coffers — effectively exploiting desperate people to turn a profit.

Back then, organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross had to pay for armed guards — the ICRC spent $100,000 a week on protection in Mogadishu.

The money went into the hands of mere gangsters — not international terrorist organizations, who are less forgiving when their debts go unpaid.
In 2018, if local merchants don’t pay up, “they’re captured and killed,” said a former al-Shabaab fighter who collected tax for eight years and now works with Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency.

Speaking in a secret location in Baidoa, he explained how for every sack of rice delivered to the city by private merchants, al-Shabaab would cream off about $3 in tolls, taking nearly half the difference in the price of a sack that sells for $18 in Mogadishu and $26 in Baidoa.

On top of that the merchants are then forced to pay an annual tax to al-Shabaab — even in towns and cities that are not under the group’s control, like Baidoa and Mogadishu.

These allegations have been confirmed by the regional government and the president of the South West State of Somalia, Hssan Sheikh Ada.

Michael Keating, the UN’s head of country, acknowledged the scam but said that most of the foreign aid still reached its intended destination.

“Unfortunately those in need, and those who are going to be targeted by humanitarian organizations to receive assistance, do become attractive for those trying to make money, and there will be all sorts of scams going on,” said Keating, a veteran UN official with years of experience in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

“To deny it is happening would be wrong, but I think to take examples of it happening, and to say the whole response is like this, would be a gross misrepresentation of what is going on.”

Forced to flee

The paying of “zaqat” isn’t confined to road tolls and taxes on businessmen. Ordinary Somalis have to pay an annual tax to the al Qaeda group which was behind terror attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall four years ago.

Fatima Ali Hassan used to own dozens of goats and cows. Driven out of her home by drought and demands for money by al-Shabaab, the mother of seven now lives in a tent made out of rags in Baidoa. She’s one of tens of thousands who have made their way to this hungry city.

But even here, she’s an asset to the terror group, like the other 270,000 displaced people living in the city — and more are pouring in every day. The UN fears that the ongoing drought will once again threaten Somalia with famine and provide al-Shabaab with even greater opportunities to make money from foreign aid — particularly if the group maintains control of the main routes through the interior of the country.

Somalia’s national army is a patchwork quilt of rival militias sewn together by thin threads of hope that one day it will be able to prevail against the extremists.

For now, the country’s primary fighting force is a 22,000-strong African Union (AU) contingent that has been protecting the country’s fledgling government in Mogadishu, and working to wrest control of south back from al-Shabaab. But it’s withdrawing slowly and is expected to be out of the country in two year’s time.

The African Union military leadership admits that it can’t push al-Shabaab off the major roads that provide it with so much income.
“Instead of reducing [AU forces], it should have been increased,” said Lt. Colonel Chris Ogwal. “We are now overstretched, we are just conducting minor offensive operations.”

Ogwal commands the Ugandan contingent which controls the road between Mogadishu and the small town of Afgoye — but not, critically, the rest of the way to Baidoa.

That remains al-Shabaab’s financial artery.

Ogwal said that any reduction in AU forces would inevitably leave a vacuum that al-Shabaab would fill.

This leaves a growing number of American troops — more than 500, including Special Operation Forces — shouldering the ever-increasing security burden in Somalia.

But this year is the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu, the infamous clash in which 18 Americans and more than 1,000 Somalis were killed when US Special Forces attempted to arrest Somalia’s most powerful warlord at the time, Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
Images of a dead pilot being dragged through the dust of the Somali capital swiftly undermined a mission that had been intended to bring humanitarian relief and resulted in a US withdrawal two years later.

But the systems of corruption and manipulation of aid in Somalia remained, and have now been co-opted to finance a terrorist movement that controls about a third of the country and may become a magnet for ISIS jihadists on the run from their former caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

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Humanitarian Watch

Somalia: More than 1,500 children orphaned after twin blasts

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AL JAZEERA — Somalia has suffered countless bomb attacks over the years, but the twin explosions in Mogadishu three months ago were the largest ever, killing more than 500 people.

More than 1,500 children became orphans as a result of the attack in which many of the victims were parents.

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Humanitarian Watch

Nomadic communities suffer most as drought stalks Somaliland

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By Corrie Butler, IFRC — Driving through the rural landscapes of Somaliland, the views are breathtaking – towering blue mountains cutting the glaring sky over dry, thorn-bushed desert. Small dome-like temporary houses, known as ‘aqals’, dot the arid terrain.

These belong to nomads who have survived in these harsh conditions for generations, but for the first time, they are facing an uncertain future.

Years of consecutive drought have spiralled Somaliland’s nomadic communities into a devastating food crisis. Their ability to pack up and move livestock to better grazing pastures would normally give them a major advantage over other farmers. But the unprecedented drought has caused most – if not all – of their camels, sheep and goats to die and, with them, their livelihoods.

The Somali Red Crescent Society, in partnership with the IFRC, is present throughout Somaliland and Puntland, helping communities to respond to the growing challenges that vulnerable groups, including nomadic communities, face.

Dorothy Francis, Operations Manager of IFRC’s Somalia Complex Emergency Appeal, explained: “The nomads are the ones that are suffering the most because their livelihoods have always been based on livestock and that’s based on access to water.

“Because the crisis has deepened, there hasn’t been the rain we expected, so we see coping strategies becoming more negative. They are selling everything. They are leaving home to go further and further away to work so families are being broken up.”

Signs of malnutrition

Hinda Adan, a nomad and mother of four, visited a Red Crescent mobile health clinic in Lamadhadher village, south of Burao, Somaliland, to have her children screened to determine signs of malnutrition. Before the drought, her and her husband were successful livestock herders, owning 120 sheep, goats and camels. They had everything they needed. But the drought has killed almost all their livestock – only ten goats remain.

“Our life depends now on these ten goats,” said Hinda. “We have one to two meals a day. We prioritize our children – to feed them first.”

However, Hinda still feels luckier than others, including her neighbours: “The family had to split up three of their children among relatives. It affected their entire home. It is affecting our entire community,” she says.

Bringing humanitarian assistance to nomadic communities is one of the biggest challenges the Red Crescent faces, as their regular movement means it is often difficult to reach them reliably.

“Often, we arrive in a community to find that [the nomads] have gone to the next area,” explained Hussein Mohamed Osman, Berbera branch secretary for the Red Crescent in the Sahil region. “It also proves to be very costly to travel long distances to reach them.”

One of Somali Red Crescent’s flagship services is its mobile clinics, which are able to travel off-road to remote villages to provide health care services, particularly to nomadic communities who need it most. Built to adapt to the needs on the ground, the mobile clinics can spend half a day or multiple days in one village.

As drought conditions have worsened, the Red Crescent has increased the number of skilled health care workers in each team to prioritize the rising cases of malnutrition among children and expectant mothers.

Understanding local needs

IFRC is supporting the Somali Red Crescent in supplementing their urgent needs over the next three months, including emergency cash for food and other items. All humanitarian assistance is carefully considered to meet the teams’ needs and allow them to remain mobile: jerry cans and aqua tabs to ensure water is clear, and shelter products to keep them warm in the cool desert evenings, including blankets, sleeping mats and tarpaulins.

Although IFRC and the Red Crescent are helping to ensure short-term emergency needs are being met, efforts to implement longer-term interventions have started, which helps communities become more resilient to future emergencies. This includes rehabilitating 95 berkeds – or small dams – in the densely populated areas that have no access to water; rehabilitating wells and other water points; and, where some rain has come, providing villagers with the means to plough their farmland.

“What we are trying to do is cover an entire community with everything so we’ll have a cleaner, safer, healthier community – providing them with food, providing them with water, providing them with shelter,” explained Dorothy.

“It is a huge task but IFRC is working with a very strong Red Crescent society. We are managing to reach the most vulnerable people. We are doing the best we can.”

Fatima Mohamed Yusuf, a nomad in Togdheer region, is one of the community members who received much-needed health care in a Somali Red Crescent mobile clinic close to her temporary settlement. The drought came at a devastating cost to her and her family, who lost 270 sheep and goats.

“If there is no rain, I worry for my remaining livestock and I worry for myself and family. Allah only knows when the rains will come,” said Fatima.

Vital partnerships to tackle drought

IFRC is working closely with the Somali Red Crescent and global partners to continue supporting the needs of the most vulnerable people, but the fight to prevent famine is not over. Somaliland is currently categorized as a stage four emergency (crisis) and could easily descend into famine. It was only six years ago that Somalia experienced a famine that killed a quarter of a million people. IFRC will help to ensure Somalia never has to experience famine again.

Thanks to the generous support of the global community through the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, seven million Swiss francs has been donated to the IFRC Emergency Food Crisis Appeal in Somalia, which will help to bring life-saving support to 353,000 people in some of the most isolated, vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities.

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