Why We Must Act Now to Address a New Famine in Somalia

Somalia drought dead goats
A woman and a boy walk past a flock of dead goats in a dry land close to Dhahar in Puntland, northeastern Somalia, December 15, 2016. A climate phenomenon known as the “Indian Ocean Dipole” is partly to blame for the drought. MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB/AFP/Getty

The election last week of Somalia's new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed—known as Farmajo—came at the same time the country was in the news for being one of the seven affected by U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration ban.

President Mohamed immediately promised a "new beginning" for his country. He undoubtedly faces monumental political challenges in delivering this, but these may pale into insignificance against a looming famine which needs immediate action and international support if it is to be prevented.

There is nothing new about famine in Somalia. The last one in 2011, killed over a quarter of a million people and is the best-chronicled descent into mass starvation in history.

Between the failure of the short rainy season in November 2010 and the declaration of famine in July 2011, the Famine Early-Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) and the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) between them released more than 70 early warning bulletins and undertook a similar number of briefings with donor governments and humanitarian agencies in a desperate attempt to trigger a preventative response. But the warnings fell on deaf ears. Only when famine was declared was aid dispatched, and at this point it was too late.

Now the alarm has been raised again. Following a poor short rainy season at the end of 2016, FEWSNET has warned that famine could return if the long rainy season, due to begin in April, fail as they did in 2011. Current forecasts suggest they might.

But things could be different this time around. Few humanitarians have forgotten the failure of 2011, which was followed by a period of intense soul-searching and painstaking evaluation. The result was a wealth of analysis on the lessons to be learned, and a grim determination to learn them.

Meanwhile, the situation in Somalia has improved in important respects. In 2011, Somalia was a country without a state, fought over by the Islamist militia al-Shabab and African Union troops in a war that dramatically restricted the ability of humanitarian agencies to reach the worst affected populations. Today, the access of humanitarian agencies is better and Somalia has a federal government, though it is probably stretching things too far to claim it has a fully functioning state at its disposal.

Despite these improvements, action to prevent famine still faces immense challenges. The last famine was confined to areas under al-Shabab's control in the south of the country, but this time areas in the north are also at risk. This presents a major test not only for the new president but also for the authorities in the self-declared republic of Somaliland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. And whilst al-Shabab's reach in the south has receded, it remains embedded in many areas where conflict persists as it fights to hold or regain territory. Nor for that matter is armed conflict limited to al-Shabab. Most conflict occurs between rival clans and militias locked in struggles over scarce land and water. In this context, getting aid to the most vulnerable populations remains extremely difficult.

But with innovation, determination and resources it can be done. Time is, however, perilously short. If 2011 is a guide, mortality will start to climb rapidly in April if the long rains are poor or late. Reports indicate that people are already starving to death and populations have begun to move in search of food. This means that the scale-up must begin now.

Uncertainty about whether the long rains will fail need not be a concern because the extent of humanitarian need in Somalia is already so great, funds will find a use. Quick interventions to build resilience and shore up livelihoods, improve access to clean water and expand infant feeding programmes are no regret options: even if the long rains arrive on time and the spectre of famine fades, a lot of good will still have been done. In areas where markets are still functioning, providing people with cash can help them afford food. Agencies must also start planning together for how they will ramp up the response again should the long rains fail.

The big question is whether the money is coming. It is unknown how the United States—the source of nearly 30 per cent of Somalia's humanitarian ai d in 2016—will view the situation. Fears that American aid might be captured by al-Shabab were behind much of the previous administration's slow response in 2011. It is unclear how President Trump's "America First" mantra will shape the response this time, though his administration's approach to tackling Islamist militancy and apparent frustration at the resilience of al-Shabab may give some clues.

Nor is it clear how other donor governments will respond to the famine warning. Europe is preoccupied with its own political and economic concerns, whilst at the international level multiple humanitarian disasters compete for limited donor attention. Amid all this noise, the risk is that governments wait for certainty about the prospect of famine and squander the chance to prevent one in the process. That would be a tragedy. In a world that seems wracked by crises, this is one we can prevent.

Rob Bailey is the research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House, and the author of the Chatham House report Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action .