Skip to main content

Parents attend to their malnourished child inside the pediatric ward at the Banadir hospital in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, July 19, 2011.FEISAL OMAR/REUTERS

Famine is raging in the failed state of Somalia.

Across the parched Horn of Africa, more than 10 million are struggling amid dying cattle and fields baked into desert with the worst drought in more than a half-century.

The rising death toll has triggered a "declaration" of a famine by the United Nations, but the announcement only pertains to southern Somalia, a largely ungoverned region that is under the sway of ruthless Islamic groups, including Al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated group of jihadists.

"We no longer see these really big food crisis too often, but in failed states they become enormous problems," said Kevin McCort, president of CARE Canada, which runs the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp just over the Kenyan border. It is now the world's largest single concentration of refugees, temporary haven to 367,000 Somalis. Every day another 1,500 stagger in. Thousands more reach other camps.

To date, death rates have topped "famine" criteria only in areas of southern Somalia, Bakool and Lower Shabelle, but the entire southern half of the country is likely to face famine in the next few weeks. More than half of Somalia's 7.5-million people face a food crisis "among these 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving," according to the Famine Early Warning Network.

While aid agencies have been warning for months that a crisis was looming, Wednesday's UN declaration put Somalia's long nightmare in the global media spotlight again.

"Somalia is facing its worst food-security crisis in the last 20 years," said Mark Bowden, the UN's chief of humanitarian aid to Somalia. The "desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives," he said, warning that "it's likely that conditions will deteriorate further in six months."

Perhaps belatedly, Al-Shabab said it was lifting its ban on allowing foreign-aid agencies into strife-torn Somalia. The Islamists, deeply suspicious of foreigners and especially Westerners, have banned aid agencies for more than a year. Others have pulled out after facing extortion and attacks. Ever since a failed UN-peacemaking effort of the early 1990s, the east African state has been largely ruled by a patchwork of warlords and armed militias. The armed intervention by several nations - including Canada - was intended to help cope with a famine but ended in blood and recriminations.

When the multinational force pulled out, Somalia lapsed into violence and chaos.

The current famine is - at least partially - a legacy of that international failure to create a civil state.

"It's no accident that the specific geographies that have been declared by the international community as an official famine are those areas where humanitarian actors simply have not been allowed to have access to the population," said USAid director Rajiv Shah, referring to the Islamist ban on international NGOs.

Politics, not the recurring droughts, tips food shortages into disasters.

Pointing to the once bountiful southern Africa nation as an example, Mr. McCort, said: "Look at Zimbabwe as an example. It's been turned from a breadbasket into a country that needs" massive food aid," Mr. McCort said.

Since the 1970s and 1980s, when seemingly annual "famine in Africa" crises turned hungry millions into a tortured cycle of death interrupted by donor spectacles such as the famous "Live Aid," concert, Africa has been largely transformed. An agricultural revolution, huge development advances, vastly improved governance and aid agencies capable of averting - rather than just responding to - disasters, have made famine rare. Far more east Africans have cell phones than face famine. But in the continents many pockets of misrule - like Zimbabwe - or war-torn or collapsed states, drought-caused food shortage morph easily into catastrophe.

The UN's World Food Program was considering high-risk options. Among them, airlifting emergency supplies of high-energy biscuits and highly nutritious supplementary foods for those at greatest risk, such as children and pregnant or nursing mothers, into southern Somalia. But "kidnappings, killings and attacks on aid convoys occur frequently," the WFP warned. Two years ago, it pulled out of Islamist-controlled southern Somalia along with most NGOs, calling it "the most dangerous country in the world to work in."

Oxfam, one of the major international aid agencies, accused the international community of ignoring the unfolding famine for too long. "The crisis has been building for several months but the response from international donors and regional governments has been mostly slow, inadequate and complacent," Oxfam said, adding, "There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act ... by the time the UN calls it a famine it is already a signal of large scale loss of life." Oxfam said $1-billion is urgently needed.

Plan Canada president Rosemary McCarney warned a "huge flow of [Somali] refugees could reach Ethiopia over the next few weeks." She said the food crisis in the Horn of Africa was far "more than just a failed-state situation."

While Somalia poses the most immediate dire challenges, Ms. McCarney warned that millions were at risk in neighbouring states and that timely aid to them in the coming months could avert famine spreading.

If those at risk "tip into famine," she said, "it's going to be catastrophic."

International Co-Operation Minister Bev Oda is in Kenya and plans to visits refugee camps.

A coalition of Canadian aid agencies issued an appeal for donations with an alarming warning that "the scale of the 1984 famine in East Africa that killed over a million people" must be averted.

"CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, Plan Canada and Save the Children Canada warn that immediate action is required to prevent loss of life on a massive scale," they said in a joint statement.

Major famines of the past 50 years

1966: Ethiopia, 100,000 to 400,000 dead

1968-1970: Biafra, Nigeria, 1 million dead

1969-74: West Africa, 100,000 dead

1972-73: India, 130,000 dead

1972-75: Ethiopia, 200,000 to 500,000 dead

1974: Bangladesh, 1.5 million dead

1979: Cambodia, 1.5 million to 2 million dead

1982-85: Mozambique, 100,000 dead

1983-85: Ethiopia, up to 1 million dead

1984-85: D'Arfur, Sudan, 250,000 dead

1988: Sudan (south), 250,000 dead

1991-93: Somalia, 300,000 to 500,000 dead

1995-99: North Korea, 2.3-million to 3.5-million dead

Source: Stephen Devereux, Institute of Development Studies, UK

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct