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‘Suffering…without witnesses’: over a quarter of a million people perished in Somali famine

A new report estimates that 258,000 people died in 2011 during a famine in Somalia, the worst of such events in 25 years and a number at least double the highest estimations during the crisis. Over half of the victims, around 133,000, were children five and under. The report, by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), argues that the international community reacted too late and too little to stem the mass starvation brought on by government instability, conflict, high food prices, and failed rains, the last of which has been linked to climate change by some scientists.

“The suffering played out like a drama without witnesses,” said Philippe Lazzarini, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, said as the report was released, adding “we could have done more before famine was declared on 20 July 2011…warnings that began as far back as the drought in 2010 did not trigger sufficient early action. In the worst affected areas, access to people in need was tremendously difficult.”

The crisis, which lasted from October 2010 to April 2012, killed 4.6 percent of the total population in Southern and Central Somalia. Ten percent of children in these regions perished. In Lower Shabelle, 18 percent of children under five died.

“There is consensus that the humanitarian response to the famine was mostly late and insufficient, and that limited access to most of the affected population, resulting from widespread insecurity and operating restrictions imposed on several relief agencies, was a major constraint,” the report reads. Between May and August 2011, deaths topped 30,000 a month.

The famine was the result of a combination of social conflict and failing rains. The worst-affected regions were under the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which was in conflict with the Somali transitional federal government. Al-Shabaab restricted donor access, declined emergency aid, and kept some from migrating. But western donors also played a role. According to Rob Bailey at the Guardian, western governments worsened the situation through draconian rules meant to keep resources from al-Shabaab but which instead kept aid from Somalians.

“In particular, US legislation meant that humanitarians working in Somalia could have been liable to prosecution in the US and up to 15 years in prison should the aid they were distributing be diverted to al-Shabaab,” Bailey with Chatham House writes. “These legal constraints were accompanied by onerous reporting requirements for agencies and their partners, and a significant decline in aid, which halved between 2008 and 2011.”

Many Somalians fled their country for aid camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, but many of these refugees died en route or on reaching the camps.

But the crisis would have never occurred if Somalia had not been suffering extreme drought. A study last year argued that La Niña conditions combined with climate change likely increased the chances of failing rains, which precipitated the famine.

“While many nonclimatic factors contributed to this crisis (high global food prices, political instability, and chronic poverty, among others) failed rains […] played a critical role,” the scientists wrote in the American Meteorological Society.

According to the researchers, sea surface temperatures in the Pacific and Indian Ocean have risen 0.7 degree, increasing the likelihood of failed rains in East Africa. Given already dry conditions and poverty, failing rains in the region can quickly lead to a food crisis and famine.

“While La Niña [conditions in 2011] had a large role to play in the failure of the rains in East Africa, there is evidence that warming in the western Pacific–Indian Ocean warm pool has contributed to an increased frequency of droughts in this region,” the researchers note.

According to the UN, some 2.7 million Somalis are still in need of international assistance.

“We are redoubling efforts to invest in Somalia’s people and communities to break the cycle of crisis and response,” says Lazzarini.

A severely malnourished child at Hilaweyn health facility, being held by his mother. Photo by: VOA - P. Heinlein.
A severely malnourished child at Hilaweyn health facility, being held by his mother. Photo by: VOA – P. Heinlein.

Rainfall in East Africa. NOAA Environmental Vizualization Laboratory. Click to enlarge.


Francesco Checchi, W. Courtland Robinson. Mortality among populations of southern and central Somalia affected by severe food insecurity and famine during 2010-2012. FAO UN. 2013.

The State of the Climate in 2011. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). Vol. 93, No. 7. July 2012.

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