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Poor rains then floods lead to food crisis in Somalia

A girl stands in front of freshly dug graves in Dadaab, Kenya. The town was one of the places Somali refuges fled to during the 2011 famine, but many didn't make it. Most of the dead were children. Photo by: Andy Hall/Oxfam East Africa.

A girl stands in front of freshly dug graves in Dadaab, Kenya. The town was one of the places Somali refuges fled to during the 2011 famine, but many didn’t make it. Most of the dead were children. Photo by: Andy Hall/Oxfam East Africa/Creative Commons 2.0.

Four years after over a quarter of a million people perished in a famine in Somalia, the East African country is again on the verge of a possible humanitarian disaster. Flooding in southern Somalia, following months of little rain, has just exacerbated an already-precarious situation according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). The group is calling for $49 million to provide emergency funding to programs already in place to stem the crisis.

“We have a small and critical window of opportunity—we must seize it now if we want to avoid going the same way as four years ago,” said Luca Alinovi, the acting Head of Office at the FAO Somalia.

In all, the United Nations estimate that a million people in Somalia are in need of assistance. The group also reports that 218,000 children in the country under five are already acutely malnourished.

“If we’ve learned anything from the devastation of the 2011 famine, it’s that early warning signs must lead to immediate action,” said Bukar Tijani, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa. “We know from experience that quick responses to early warnings are crucial to prevent disaster and are less costly than emergency responses to full-blown humanitarian crisis.”

Experts fear the new crisis could become the second famine in the country in just a few years. In 2011 a potent combination of conflict with extremist groups, failed governance, poor rainfall, and high food prices led to the worst famine worldwide in a quarter of a century. A report several years after the fact found that it was much more destructive than believed, killing 258,000 people, including 133,000 children under five.

“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 2013 report read.

Poor rains this year in the country’s grain belts led to lower-than-expected harvests, in addition to water scarcity and livestock problems. Current flooding however now threatens to overrun crops grown along rivers, worsening the situation. The poor crop situation has led to a spike in food prices, an issue in other parts of Africa as well.

Climate change may also be playing a role as well. Some recent research has suggested that warming in the western Pacific and Indian oceans could be helping to drive recent droughts in eastern Africa, but more research is likely needed. That said, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report finds that climate change will very likely lead to worsening droughts in the drier parts of Africa.

Undernourishment by percentage. Note that Somalia is categorized as missing or insufficient data. Graph courtesy of FAO. Click to enlarge.

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