You Can’t Grow Food in This Country and Children Are Dying

While all eyes are on the brutal war in Ukraine, twice as many children in Somalia have died during an intense drought – and few countries seem to care.

DOLOW, Somalia – As the wails of emaciated babies filled an infant care ward in western Somalia, one bed was silent.

Staff pulled a grey blanket over Someye Isak, who had just died of hypoglycaemia arising from severe malnutrition. She was two years old. Her relatives buried her in the red sand and thorn bushes outside the aid camp they fled to after their crops dried up.

“I fear for the lives of my family,” her grandfather Isak Abdi told VICE World News. “There's another child who is sick now with malaria, typhoid and diarrhoea, and I don't have the funds to buy him medicine. I'm asking God to help us.”

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Humans, animals and plants are dying in the intense drought. Photo: Daniel Vergara

The brutality of Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shocked the world, with at least 362 children among the civilians killed. Meanwhile, at least 730 children have died in nutrition centres in Somalia this year amid a record drought, according to UNICEF, and doctors say several times more have died at home or on the road. Thousands are suffering measles, acute watery diarrhoea and other illnesses typical of malnutrition. 

People can't grow food, and it’s hard to buy as well. The war in Ukraine has driven up already high prices. Over 50 million in the Horn of Africa could go hungry by the end of the year.

But while Western countries have promised $100 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, the United Nations is struggling to raise $1.46 billion from them to keep people from starving in Somalia.

If the high-income nations responsible for the lion's share of carbon emissions don't invest to help low-income ones adapt to global warming with improvements like drought-resistant crops, children will continue to starve to death in climate disasters. That’s a point Somalia and others will try to make in November at Egypt’s COP27, the first-ever UN climate conference to be held in Africa.

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“The least polluting countries are the ones that are bearing the brunt of climate change,” said Adam Abdelmoula, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. “It makes absolute sense for the countries of the south… to see some sort of conversation that would enable them to implement climate adaptation measures that would make them just survive.”

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Somalia has been here before, when a drought and famine killed 260,000 people in 2011-12. To stop it happening again, Barack Obama and other G8 leaders announced an initiative to encourage public-private investment in Africa’s agriculture and reduce its reliance on imported food

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The initiative fell short of its goals, though, and Somalia is now in the grip of an even worse drought after four failed rainy seasons in a row. Fields of sorghum and maize have withered in the dry heat. Although a nationwide famine hasn't yet been declared, 17 districts are at famine levels of hunger. 

Dead goats and donkeys litter the ground in the parched countryside south of Dolow, bones poking through their desiccated skin. The clouds are tinged with red dust. Inside the thatched hut of herder Mohamed Omar Guuleed and his family, the wheat sack is empty, and the rice is almost gone, too.

“We call this a nightmare,” he said.

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Children are suffering terribly in the drought. PHOTO: Daniel Vergara

Even a half-litre bottle of cooking oil costs twice what it did a year ago at the dusty bazaar in Dolow. Global food prices that started going up during the pandemic reached record levels after Russia's invasion trapped 25 million tons of grain in Ukraine. Exports have started to trickle out again thanks to a shipping corridor agreement, including the first humanitarian grain shipment to the Horn of Africa, to Ethiopia via Djibouti, in August. But the number of ships would have to double to make a dent in the food crisis.

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On top of this, al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgency affiliated with al-Qaeda, has been blocking humanitarian aid in the roughly 25 percent of the country it controls. Its fighters killed 21 people at a hotel in Mogadishu last weekend, the biggest attack since US special operations troops returned to the country in May.

A million people have fled to cities in search of food. At a Dolow aid camp, Bilaay Salaad Ibrahim, a blunt 65-year-old in a purple shawl, had just come more than a hundred miles from al-Shabab territory in a column of donkey carts with her two- and ten-year-old granddaughters. Her two other grandchildren had died of malnutrition after her sorghum crop failed and her livestock starved. Another newly arrived woman and child were drinking acacia thorns boiled in water.

“We were travelling to this area for 10 days. Up to now we haven't had any food to eat. I'm still in pain,” Bilaay said. “The reason why the children are crying is because of hunger… I don’t have anything to give them.”

Droughts in Somalia are becoming more frequent and intense. Sixteen of the past 25 spring rainy seasons have seen below-average precipitation, in part due to the warming of sea temperatures in the western Pacific Ocean, according to Chris Funk, head of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Combined with periodic La Nina cooling in the eastern Pacific, this strengthens a circulation pattern in which warm, moist air rises and rains over Indonesia, then descends over Somalia to create a dry high-pressure system. There's a 70 percent chance this fall's rainy season will fail as well.

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Photo: Daniel Vergara

But while climate change sets the stage for catastrophe, “humanitarian disasters are made by humans,” Funk said.

“It's hard to get people to pay attention to sequential droughts,” he said. “There's a lot of inaction related to what's going on.”

While the US has donated more than $700 million, the UN's drought response plan to provide emergency food, water, medicine and cash transfers in Somalia is still hundreds of millions of dollars short. That forces international agencies to “take food from the hungry to feed the starving,” as World Food Program director David Beasley put it. 

Preoccupied with the bloody war in Ukraine, major European donor countries like Germany have given only a fraction of the aid to Somalia that they gave last year, although the German foreign office said “further funding is being processed.” Italy, Somalia's former colonial ruler, has only donated about $500,000 to the response plan, according to the UN's financial tracking service, with €3 million approved for other emergency NGO work. 

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Abdirashid Omar Jambukila, project manager at Gedo Women Development Organisation in Dolow, has watched UN funding for his NGO dwindle. He compared Europe to an intensive care doctor who abandons an older patient, Somalia, to focus on a new patient, Ukraine.

“You have to continue supporting this one and find another support for the new patient,” he said.

Aid funding for climate disasters isn't charity. 

Since the industrial revolution, North America and Europe have emitted an estimated 20 times more carbon dioxide than Africa, which is now heating up faster than the global average and suffering increasing droughts, floods, cyclones, wildfires and locust infestations. The most vulnerable continent, it's at the bottom of what David Wallace-Wells has called the "climate caste system." At least 700 people have died this year in unprecedented storms and flooding in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa and Uganda. 

High-income countries admitted they should be doing more to help low-income countries adapt to climate change way back in 2010, when they promised to give $100 billion a year to the newly created Green Climate Fund by 2020. They still haven't hit that target. 

Somalia’s adaptation plan under the Paris climate accords requires $5.5 billion annually – almost five times more than all the humanitarian funding it’s been given this year.

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African countries will demand more climate adaptation funding – and less red tape to obtain it – at the COP27 conference in Cairo, according to Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, Somalia's special envoy for drought response. Some in the global south want to go further and discuss compensation for climate change “loss and damage” at COP27, but wealthier nations have resisted making that a focus.

The US and Europe are being urged to invest more in long-term fixes. Expanding cash transfers via mobile phones could allow more people to remain on their farms rather than flee to aid camps. Drought-resistant crops, wells, dams and irrigation and vocational training could help prevent repeat disasters. And debt relief from international agencies and hedge funds could free up tens of billions for climate spending in Africa.

Otherwise, most of Somalia will become uninhabitable, Abdelmoula said, with average temperatures predicted to rise 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2080.

“This is Einstein's definition of insanity,” he said. “We have been dumping resources in Somalia and other similar situations for decades, and we've been expecting different results… These countries need to be helped to do proper climate adaptation.”

When VICE News returned to the Dolow aid camp the next day, Bilaay had managed to cobble together a tent of rags and branches for herself and her granddaughters. They still hadn't been given any food aid, though.

“There is no one standing over me yelling or pointing a gun at me,” she said. “But I am hungry. And the children are crying for lack of food to eat.”