Food has run out in Somalia. And so has time

Across the Horn of Africa, it isn't the case that food is running out. It has run out. The cupboard is empty. What we are now running out of is time, says the supervisor of a disaster response team.
A mother lies with her child on a road in Mogadishu while waiting for assistance at a makeshift medical camp.
A mother lies with her child on a road in Mogadishu while waiting for assistance at a makeshift medical camp.
Today was a difficult day, a disturbing day.

We are on our way to the Arsi zone in central Ethiopia, where the organisation I work for, Plan International, is setting up relief response to the food crisis and drought. We stopped in a place called Edo. It is in Shebedino, one of the worst affected regions of Ethiopia's southern SNNPR (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region).

When you first arrive, you look at the landscape and it looks green and we seem to be surrounded by fields and plantations full of crops. Your immediate thought is: "So what is the problem here? Are people really going hungry here?"

But it is deceptive. On closer inspection, the crops are false crops. Because the rains never came, they failed and are inedible, useless - a phenomena known as "Green Drought" - and it is just as treacherous as a real drought.

We arrive at a small compound of a few buildings, mostly old sheds. There are military present. At the last round of food distribution, at the start of July, there were hundreds of people and children here. But now there is no point. The stores that held food have nothing but a few sacks of maize and grain.

That is all that is left. It's not that food is running out. It has run out. The cupboard is empty. What we are now running out of is time.

We meet Meselech, a mother of five who is trying to breastfeed her four-month-old baby, Abraham. It is desperate to witness and distressing.

To breastfeed as a mother you need enough food for two people, as the local saying goes, but she doesn't have remotely enough for one person. She looks tired, exhausted. She struggles to feed Abraham. He cries constantly. Afterward, he cannot settle, cannot sleep.

The health clinics have said three of her children are severely malnourished. So she is one of the people receiving food materials as part of a targeted supplementary feeding programme, a lifeline relief in food crisis situations.

The last time she received food she was given 22.5 kilograms of maize, 4.5kg of local beans and 900 mL of cooking oil. The volume of food provided was calculated based on the number of diagnosed malnourished children. But the supply didn't last for many days. No doubt she was trying to feed her entire family and maybe others on this ration.

It is human nature. If you or I were starving, our children starving, we wouldn't try to save food and give only to a few. For those who are struggling for a meal a day, is there a difference between severely malnourished and just malnourished? There isn't much. Nutrition and food can be technical subjects. However, for mothers like Meselech struggling to feed their children, hunger has a simple explanation. Their children can't walk, play or even sleep.

It is a complex, complicated situation here. There are multiple factors at play. This mother had her house burnt down during the conflict, which has flared up again recently. The ethnic conflict has affected many on and off since 2004. Fighting displaced hundreds of people from their homes, which were then destroyed. Months later, people have slowly started settling back.

The rains failed again in February and the crops failed in what was already a vulnerable area. Land access is also an issue for many families who may want to grow their own food.

Edo is not one of Plan's normal operational areas. We have been intervening in other parts, such as Shebedino, for some time with supplementary food distributions and trying to support livestock, helping 3,000 children and breastfeeding women; and also with more long-term solutions, such as repairing and rehabilitating water points and providing high-quality hybrid seeds for planting.

In the district of Wondogenet where Edo is located, nearly 5,000 children and lactating mothers are receiving the supplementary feeding as part of Plan's relief work.

But the situation is worse than everyone earlier thought and feared. The UN estimates that more than 12.4 million people are in need of food assistance in the Horn of Africa, out of which 4.8 million people are in Ethiopia. Plan will start operations in five new areas because of urgent need. But it is difficult. When you start in a new area you have to get clearance from local government and other agencies, assess and get to know the area first. In Shebedino district alone, 3,695 new cases of children and lactating mothers with malnutrition have been identified and talks with the local government are in progress so that we can start providing supplementary feeding.

The UN says the number of Somali refugees coming over here has fallen to 300 from 2,000 a day - and is increasing rapidly into Kenya. But the question you need to ask is: "Is that because they are just too exhausted to make the crossing or because they are going elsewhere? Or is it that the borders have been tightened?"

The thing with drought is that it is a slow-onset emergency. You know well in advance that it is coming and can lead to food shortage. FEWS Net (Famine Early Warning Systems Network) set up after the 1985 famine, said this is the worst drought in 60 years. In the case of neighbouring Somalia, where more than 2.8 million people need immediate lifesaving support, famine was declared in July, eight months after the first FEWS Net forecast. UN's first appeal came after that. By that time, it was already at the tipping point.

So the good news is, you get an early warning; the bad news is that the world doesn't give a damn until there are pictures of dying children in the media - and by then, time is already running out.

The UN says it needs US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) for the Horn of Africa. Donors have pledged half - so half the people will go hungry. Rich nations need to be more generous and need to act now. Moreover, we need sustainable long-term solutions to stop this happening time and time again.

This will involve better food and nutrition security, better public health systems, disaster risk reduction measures, better agricultural and live stock practices, better trade policies etc. Mostly importantly, it is necessary to place children at the centre of any discussion on "drought" or food crisis. They are the worst hit and often the least heard.

In the case of Meselech and Abraham, we intervened in time. If we hadn't, she would not have had much hope.

Unni Krishnan is the disaster response coordinator for children's organisation Plan International. He has 20 years experience across the world in humanitarian work. He is in Ethiopia leading Plan's humanitarian response.

Plan is working in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, providing immediate and long-term aid to 1.5 million people. Donations can be made though the organisation's international websites listed at http://plan-international.org/what-you-can-do/emergency-appeals/east-africa-appeal

Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM

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