I’ve worked for Save the Children in Somalia for the past five years, regularly travelling across the country to visit the communities we support.
Every year the rains would come and I’d visit towns and villages that were green and lush. Livestock were mostly fat and healthy, and I’d hear stories from children who were fed and happy. But now I’m travelling to these same communities and all I see is dust, dead carcasses and children suffering. Since the start of February, Somalia’s drought has turned from bad to catastrophic, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of children are now on the line.
In the past few months the number of people suffering ‘emergency’ level food shortages has increased tenfold, and severe malnutrition has surged. And yet I fear the worst is still to come.
In Somalia there are two types of people. Those who live in urban communities, who have diverse skills and are well equipped to withstand situations like this. And there are pastoralists, who make up 60 percent of the population and whose sole source of livelihood is tending to their animals. For these people and their families, this drought is the apocalypse – already more than three quarters of Somalia’s livestock have perished.
The 2011 famine in East Africa saw more than 250,000 people die, many within a concentrated part of Somalia. Insecurity played a huge role in the death toll here as it prevented aid agencies from gaining access to many of the worst affected areas. However, back then Somali herders could still find pasture for their animals if they travelled far enough. The confines of the drought were escapable.
But this time around there is simply nowhere left to go; it’s too big. Drought has engulfed the entire Horn of Africa, with 15 million people facing food insecurity and water shortages across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
For the past 12 weeks I’ve been travelling across Somalia with media crews who are reporting on the crisis, beaming images of barren lands, hungry children and desperate faces across the world. Their role in raising the profile of this disaster and eliciting funding from donors has been critical. But these trips have also offered me a unique lens to see the crisis through. Every day I listen to pastoralists’ stories. Every day I console grieving mothers and witness the devastating impacts of drought on children.
I see mothers waiting all day by the dusty roadside because they’ve run out of water and exhausted their line of credit with local water trucking businesses. Their only option is to wait and hope someone will fill their buckets and jerry cans. I meet father’s who’ve moved their entire herd hundreds of kilometres across the country in a desperate attempt to find pasture. Along the way the animals die one by one and the grounds remain barren and dusty. And I watch emaciated children fight for their lives in health centres across the country, drifting in and out of consciousness – too frail to move on their own. Some recover and lift spirits of everyone around them, and others don’t, dying in their mother’s arms.
These stories are everywhere, and they break my heart over and over again. This is my country. These are my people, and it’s so hard to see a situation like this. When the rains eventually come, however, this crisis will be long from over. In fact, in the short-term the rains will do more harm than good. Weak animals will still die during the time it takes good pasture to grow, and the rainwater will wash over millions of rotting animal carcasses, spreading disease and illness into desperate communities.
Save the Children and other aid agencies are already preparing for this, promoting safe hygiene practices and clearing dead animals, but there are literally millions. The problem is too big, and sadly that’s the story of this drought. It’s on a scale like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Even though international donors are giving generously, this crisis is so far beyond the capacity of the government and what NGOs can manage. The backbone of Somalia’s economy has been obliterated and the drought is attacking progress made in areas like health, education and governance.
Visiting these communities is becoming increasingly heart-breaking for me. And while I know how crucial media visits are to raising funds, each one leaves me more and more worried. I’m worried because if international donors do not start paying attention to my people’s desperate stories and funding Save the Children’s life-saving interventions, they will soon be just that – stories - of children that are there no more.