World needs to 'act now' to avert disaster in Somalia as tens of thousands face famine

15 leading UK aid agencies called on Liz Truss this month to act as Somalia is weeks away from famine. Credit: ITV News

Writing for ITV News, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband says the world needs to wake up to the hunger crisis in Somalia that is placing tens of thousands of lives in danger as the country slides towards famine.

I hope ITV’s reporting on the hunger crisis in Somalia is a wake-up call. If the world waits to take action until a famine is formally declared, the first such declaration in five years, it will be too late for too many.

We have seen this danger before. In 2011, the drought and subsequent famine in Somalia took the lives of a quarter million people. Half of those deaths took place before famine was declared. We need to learn that lesson today, when a total of 36 million people across east Africa are in danger.

The causes of the crisis include local conflict and the global climate crisis. Somalia is responsible for just 0.002% of global greenhouse gas emissions over the past 250 years but ranks amongst the top countries most vulnerable to the impact of extreme weather. Four successive years of drought, and the danger of a fifth year, have created extreme danger.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has argued that when famine comes, it is the result of political and policy choices. Sad to say, that is the danger today.

Somalia is weeks away from famine, but thousands are already dying. Credit: ITV News

While the international community is rightfully seized with growing food insecurity around the world, the countries sliding towards famine are being missed. The UN Secretary-General’s creation of a High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine more than a year ago recognised this. Yet a proliferation of global initiatives on food insecurity risks diffusing responsibility and diluting focus. On the current path, the world is quickly nearing a grim new record/milestone: nearly one million people are projected to face famine conditions – putting them at risk of starvation and death. This represents a tenfold increase in just six years.

The problem is not just the failure to tackle climate change. There are more proximate reasons. I don’t just mean the impact of the war in Ukraine, which has disrupted grain supplies for a region highly dependent on Ukrainian exports. I mean the failure to “follow the signs” when they were flashing red.

This crisis was not just predictable and preventable. It was predicted. There have been over two years of repeated warnings and worsening hunger. No one can say they were not warned.

There is a strong early warning system for drought. There is modelling of climate change to predict extreme weather events and poor harvests. And we have the humanitarian programming proven to mitigate the impact on vulnerable communities. The greatest obstacle is the lack of action.

The situation has already displaced a million people. Credit: ITV News

Donors in the richer countries have been way too slow – or just looked away.  The basic minimum of the humanitarian response plan for Somalia is this year only 70% funded - most fulfilled by the United States. The US has committed $1.7 billion this year to the regional effort, with $700 million devoted to Somalia, but European Union and Gulf donors have failed to match that.  The gap in Somalia’s response plan is still over $400 million.

In the case of the UK, the story is telling and not pretty. Despite having played a critical role in 2017 in averting mass loss of life, this year the UK has only contributed £156 million to the regional response effort this fiscal year.

There is still a window of opportunity to prevent catastrophic loss of life. The international system must look through the windshield – not through the rear-view mirror - and respond before it's too late. The aim should obviously be to save lives but also to prevent long-term, generational repercussions on health, hunger, and livelihoods that come with famine.

There are four priorities, starting with full funding of the UN’s humanitarian appeal, and the use of swift, efficient and local mechanisms to reach those affected by the crisis.  International NGOs like the International Rescue Committee can bring expertise and infrastructure, but we need local engagement too. This humanitarian appeal extends across the whole region. I have just been on a call with the IRC team in Ethiopia, and they are on red alert too, but need more funding to help the people in need.

Second, we need to adopt new and proven systems for tackling acute malnutrition – like the IRC’s combined protocol for moderate and severe acute malnutrition. This approach puts power in the hands of parents and communities, and is especially appropriate to war-torn states. It offers the prospect of more efficient programming, making the money go further. At the same time, we need to ensure that basic water and sanitation systems are in place to prevent the spread of disease, which is such a killer when it runs rife in malnourished communities.

There's been a 130% increase in severely malnourished children admitted in Baidoa, compared to last year. Credit: ITV News

Third, we need to put paid to the idea that humanitarian crisis and the climate crisis are separate. They are closely connected. Global warming means more catastrophic weather events, not just a gradual rise in the global temperature. We need urgent mapping of areas in danger, and investment in resilience for affected communities.

Fourth, the UN High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine has a pivotal role to play in galvanising attention and resources before it’s too late. It should re-focus its attention on the six countries at highest risk of famine today - Afghanistan, Yemen, northeast Nigeria, Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan – to coordinate an urgent and focused response together with major global donors, including institutions like the World Bank, and NGOs.

A third of children admitted face emergency hunger levels. Credit: ITV News

Less than a quarter of annual climate financing on average has gone to developing countries for climate adaptation, essential to surviving the present reality of extreme weather. We believe at least 50% of the annual $100 billion commitment for climate financing should be devoted to adaptation to ensure countries like Somalia are not left behind. This is a critical task for the forthcoming climate summit in Egypt.

I know that in the Western world times are tough. But the needs in east Africa today are literally life and death.  We need to act now. 

Mohamed Hussein Nasib, Livelihoods Program Manager at IRC Somalia writes

Somalia is currently experiencing its worst drought, with more than 6.7 million people expected to face acute food insecurity until the end of the year. The IRC is already seeing alarming levels of malnutrition and mortality levels in Somalia, particularly in the Baidoa region, where 28.4% of all children aged six-to-59 months screened were experiencing emergency levels of hunger, meaning without intervention they could imminently lose their lives.

As some 300,000 people are projected to face famine this year, it is all hands-on deck to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe from happening in Somalia.

300,000 expected to face famine at the end of this year. Credit: ITV News

The IRC is currently responding in many parts of Somalia by providing basic services, like water, health, and treatment for the record-high malnutrition, as well as cash to support people directly to purchase basic goods and keep their animals alive. So far, we have reached around 250,000 beneficiaries across the country since the beginning of 2022. However, insecurity and the surge in food prices has significantly impeded the ability of humanitarian actors – like the IRC – from reaching those most in need. We need an urgent and immediate increase in humanitarian resources to save millions of lives currently at risk.

Somalia is now entering its fifth consecutive season without adequate rainfall, which will impact and displace millions more in the country. We need a holistic approach in our response to mitigate the long-term impacts of climate-induced droughts, so that communities can reclaim their livelihoods and re-build resilience.

Donate to help the people of Somalia through the International Rescue Committee