Waiting for a famine declaration for Somalia is “too late”: Humanitarian Sector

20 Sep, 2022

This week the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly is meeting in New York, attended by Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong. It comes less than a fortnight after the UN announced that famine was imminent in Somalia.


The Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for Australian humanitarian agencies, is calling on the Australian government to direct $150 million towards programs targeting hunger and starvation in the worst-affected regions around the world, including the Horn of Africa, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. 


Discussions at the UN have already been held on global food insecurity, forced displacement and how to support a response. 


Even without an official declaration of famine in Somalia, hunger and starvation are already at shocking levels. An estimated 7.8 million people in Somalia are facing severe food shortages, with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at immediate risk. 


According to UNICEF, more than half a million Somali children under the age of five are expected to suffer acute malnutrition and risk death from famine this year. 


Three million livestock have died, and around a million people have been forced to leave their homes in search of food. The current drought is longer and more severe than previous droughts.  


ACFID is calling on the Albanese government to recognise the scale of this crisis, and act now to try to avert at least some of the impact. 


"Somalia, along with other parts of the Horn of Africa, is staring down the barrel of famine and misery," said ACFID CEO Marc Purcell. 


“Australia’s action now will help to prevent the crisis from worsening, rather than waiting for famine to be officially declared and more people dying,” said Mr Purcell. 


Somalia is set to suffer a fifth consecutive failed rainy season, meaning that much needed food stocks cannot be replenished.  


The hunger crisis is worst in two areas in the country’s south-central Bay region - Baidoa and Burhakaba districts. The FAO says it will most likely continue until March 2023 unless humanitarian aid is not significantly and immediately scaled up. 


The most vulnerable groups are pregnant and lactating women, and children under the age of five. 


Between January and July, more than 730 children died in nutrition centres across the country, according to UNICEF.  


This is the third severe drought in the Horn of Africa over the past 12 years. The 2010/11 drought caused famine. A rapid and timely humanitarian response by Australia totalling $112 million in 2010/11 saved many hundreds of thousands of lives.


"Australia should acts as it did last time to prevent famine. It is a proven fact that early humanitarian intervention by the government saves lives," said Mr Purcell. "We know from lessons learned during previous famines in the region that when humanitarian aid is provided for preventative measures, it builds resilience." 


What is famine?

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) developed the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) to track hunger. It is a standardised scale that categorises the severity of acute food insecurity into five phases, ranging from 'minimal' (phase 1) to 'catastrophe' or 'famine' (phase 5). Parts of Somalia are rated at 5. Also at IPC5 are regions of the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. 


The IPC defines a famine as an extreme event where "starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical levels of acute malnutrition" are likely or present. 


Famine is declared when a region has 20 percent or more of households facing an extreme lack of food, at least 30 percent of children suffering from acute malnutrition, and two out of every 10,000 people dying each day from starvation or related conditions or illnesses. 


The United Nations makes the call to declare a famine, in conjunction with the government of the country involved. 


Part of declaring a famine is to kickstart the donor process - however the inherent flaw is that waiting for a crisis to reach official famine status means that already, too many lives have been lost or upended. 



The looming famine is the result of a confluence of factors, including multiple failed rainy seasons, conflicts including that in Ukraine, and the Covid-19 pandemic. 


The last time Somalia suffered official famine was in 2011, when more than 250,000 Somalis died of starvation or disease. 


Somalia relies on Russia and Ukraine for more than 90 percent of its wheat supplies. Food prices are spiking due to shortages and fuel costs, and even basic items - such as red sorghum - are spiraling.  


Another contributing factor is water scarcity. Around 6.4 million Somalis lack access to safe water sources, which make them more susceptible to disease outbreaks. 


Over the past two years, Covid-19 made its way through Somalia with an official death toll of 800 and confirmed cases at 15,300, however the actual figures are believed to be far higher. The pandemic exposed the extreme paucity of the country’s health infrastructure. 


Another contributing factor has been plagues of desert locusts in recent years that have threatened farmlands and crops. 


Somalia country overview

Somalia’s recent history is marked by armed conflict and political instability. It also has one of the world’s highest foreign debts. It trails on many development indicators, and child mortality rates are the highest of the world. It has a population of an estimated 12.5 million (although many nomads and refugees make it hard to confirm this). More than 60 percent of the population is under 25. There are more than 1.1 million Somalis living outside the country in the region and more than 1.1 million internally displaced Somalis. GDP per capital is $US800, and agriculture is the most important sector. 


#HelpFightFamine campaign

Fifty million people around the world are facing famine due to conflicts, climate change and Covid-19. Somalia will be the first place where famine will be officially declared, but it is not the only one.  

A number of Australian international aid organisations have banded together to form the #HelpFightFamine campaign, which is a coordinated move to push the Australian government to commit $150 million towards famine relief in the October budget, and $200 million per annum ongoing invested in resilience and prevention. fightfamine.com.au

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