MOGADISHU, Somalia — In the weeks after a historic transfer of power, there is hope in the streets of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu as the new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, begins his term. Civil servants say they expect to be paid for the first time in a year. Residents hope the city can be rebuilt. And foreign troops here from across East Africa fighting al-Shabaab terrorists hope their mandate will finally come to an end.
“The election has been a big confidence boost for Somalis,” says Michael Keating, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General (SRSG). “Somalis have just done something truly remarkable.”
But Farmajo’s first week has been trying. Al-Shabaab, at war with the Somali government for the last decade, has ramped up attacks on the new government, launching a deadly mortar attack aimed at the presidential palace and taking credit for a car bomb that killed 39 people.
“I have seen many other droughts. This is the worst.”
Adapting to al-Shabaab’s shifting strategies will be a long-term challenge for the new administration, but the real test will be whether the new government can prevent a looming crisis: the starvation of its people.
Somalia is on the edge of famine, as severe drought threatens the entire country. Humanitarians say if nothing is done, it will be worse than the 2011 famine that killed a quarter-million people.
About 600 miles from Mogadishu, in Somalia’s Puntland region, every room in Garowe Hospital’s Stabilization Center is full of children under 5, most suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
Fadumo Adam is 18 months old but the size of a newborn. Her parents brought her into the center five days ago, unconscious and barely alive. Now, she lies on her side, mouth open, and tries to cry. She stretches her arm out toward a water bottle on the bed.
Her father, 70-year-old Adam Farrah, says she is doing much better as he lifts her up to pour some water into her mouth. A nurse explained she’s too weak to even sit up on her own.
On the bed near the window, Layla Mohammed holds her 15-month-old son, Issa. Covered in rashes, the child’s skin is shriveled and peeling off due to high fever. Issa also suffers from diarrhea and vomiting, brought on from drinking saltwater — the only thing available from the borehole, Layla says.
And these patients are the lucky ones, the staff insists.
“The ones here are the ones with means. We can’t reach everyone,” says Said Ahmed Yassin, 24, a nutritionist who oversees the stabilization center.
Three of Fadumo’s cousins have died of malnutrition in the past month, according to her father. All of them were younger than 10 years old. All of their camels died in the drought. Now, traveling to seek medical help is difficult and expensive.
Livestock herders like Adam Farrah are accustomed to lean times and cyclical drought. But he and other elderly herders across Puntland, now taking shelter in camps for the internally displaced, say the current challenges are different.
“I have seen many other droughts. This is the worst. Every few years we go through challenging times. But nothing like this, never,” Farrah says.
Over 6 million Somalis face the loss of their livestock-dependent livelihoods and risk acute malnutrition.
On the three-hour drive from Garowe to the Uusgure IDP camp, the main road is littered with the carcasses of goats and camels. Roadside water tanks dug into the ground are scorched and dry.
Local leaders say most herders have already lost 65 percent of their livestock. Families here depend on selling livestock for income, meat, and milk. Most say their livestock count has been reduced from hundreds to tens.
The remaining goats are too skinny to sell.
New arrivals turn up daily at Uusgure camp, now home to nearly 400 families. It formed four months ago, one of many IDP camps emerging on the outskirts of towns and cities. Nomadic pastoralists, who typically live only with their extended families, have come together, hoping that humanitarian aid will reach them in camps.
Uusgure residents say no food or water aid has reached them since late 2016. Women here say they manage to feed their children one meal of rice a day, usually in the evening so they don’t go to sleep hungry.
In one shelter, 2-year-old Fahiyah, dazed and severely malnourished, licks specks of sugar off her palms. Mothers here say the food aid that comes – rice, sugar, oil – lacks nutrients for children.
“We will all die of hunger.”
Fahiyah’s mother, Sara, says she cannot afford to get the toddler medical care. Soon she will have to choose which of her four children she will be able to feed.
“I can’t feed them all. Without the animals, there is nothing to eat, no milk for Fahiyah. We will just be here, waiting.”
Similar scenes of malnourished toddlers, writhing or nearly unconscious, play out in other shelters in Uusgure.
In December, there were rumors of rain in the coastal towns of Puntland. The men took the few remaining livestock there in search of pasture. The IDP camps are full of women, children, and the elderly, not sure of what their next move will be.
“The weakest have been left behind,” says Tom Arup of Save the Children. “There’s no access to clean water. Food prices are high and they have no earning capacity. There is a dangerous situation looming.”
Those left behind say they are already in peril.
“It’s only me here,” says 65-year-old Fadumo Farah. “We will follow the animals. We will all die of hunger.”
Aid workers warn only a “large scale-up” of services in March will prevent a “worst-case humanitarian scenario.”
Environmental organizations say this is the worst drought since Somalis began keeping records 70 years ago. And this time, the drought is considerably more widespread.
Nevertheless, humanitarians insist lessons have been learned from the 2011 famine.
“Shame on all of us if people are dead in four years because of the famine.”
“In 2011, there were a lot of warning signs that frankly weren’t acted upon,” says Arup. “The famine occurred quicker than most humanitarians thought it might.”
UNICEF’s director of health and nutrition in Puntland, Dr. Saboor Ahmad Bahrami, says this time there’s a system in place that can react in time.
“Drought means the rain failed. But famine means the system has failed,” Bahrami says in his Garowe field office.
Keating says if the new government fails to coordinate humanitarian services and drought response, it will face a “serious problem.”
“If the first thing that becomes apparent about the new government is that it is unable to mount a response to this, then its legitimacy and its popularity are going to be very badly dented before it’s even started,” Keating explains, adding that in their conversations, Farmajo has made it clear that drought response is his “total, top priority.”
During his inauguration in Mogadishu, the new president promised he would create a strategy “to avert a catastrophic situation from the painful droughts.”
But al-Shabaab may complicate his plans in South Central Somalia, where the group still controls territory. In 2011, the group regularly extorted money from aid agencies and managed to wrest control of critical food supplies. In response, the U.S. drastically cut aid to avoid supporting a terrorist group, a move regional experts say directly contributed to thousands of deaths in the South Central region.
So far, there have been isolated reports of al-Shabaab meddling with food distribution in South Central Somalia. Keating believes the group also learned from 2011, when they “made themselves incredibly unpopular with the population” for restricting food aid.
“There does not seem to be a systemwide decision to obstruct drought response,” he explained. “If anything, they’re trying to show that they’re being more responsible than the government, which itself is a political problem.”
Analysts say a strong drought response could be an opportunity for the new government to bring more moderate al-Shabaab fighters back into the fold, by coordinating with them on food aid efforts.
Far from the political and security considerations of politicians in Mogadishu, Puntland’s Minister of Environment Ali Abduhalli hopes the new government and the international community will hear his plea for “immediate action.”
“Shame on all of us if people are dead in four years because of the famine.”
Julia Steers is an East Africa-based reporter and producer covering politics and human rights.
Adriane Ohanesian is an American photographer who has lived and worked in Africa since 2010.