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The approaching risk of another famine in Somalia

Can the Nation Afford to Lose the Momentum Again?

In this Monday, Aug. 15, 2011 file photo, children from southern Somalia hold their pots as they line up to receive cooked food in Mogadishu, Somalia. 260,000 people died Somalia's 2011 famine. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh, File)

Written by Dr Khalif Bile Mohamud M.D.; Ph.D.
Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is Somalia on the brink of famine? 

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Somalia is among the few countries in the world, repeatedly facing chronic food insecurity and periodically moving towards acute food insecurity leading to famine. The year 2014 is the third time that within a course of two and half decades the country is again on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster that could lead to famine in catastrophic dimensions. In September 2013, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) indicated that about 870,000 people, 72% of them being internally displaced persons (IDPs) were at risk of entering into the Crisis and Emergency Phases 3 and 4 of the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) of food insecurity that precede the disastrous famine phase. An additional 2.3 million were also recognized as being in the Stressed phase 2 of fragile food security[1]. A subsequent statement released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) entitled “2014 Humanitarian Needs Overview Somalia” alerted that 3.2 million Somalis need life-saving assistance, including 600,000 children, under the age of five years, one third of them being severely malnourished and 100,000 pregnant and lactating mothers as needing sustained nutritional support to avert them [from] falling into acute malnutrition[2].

On 5th August  2014, the Somali federal government declared a severe drought, loss of livelihoods and appealed for humanitarian action for assisting the regions of Lower Shabelle, Middle and Lower Juba, Bay, Bakool, Benadir, Gedo, Hiraan and Galgudud. On 29th August 2014, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for Somalia alerted the global community that “the rapidly rising malnutrition and food shortages across the country resemble the warning signs which preceded the 2011 famine in which about 260,000 people died” and reiterated that “it would just be morally difficult to justify and accept that a new crisis of this scope could unfold.” He stressed on the government and African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) to resolve the supply road problems to improve the access to the affected geographical areas[3].

Assessing Food Insecurity           

According to the UN IPC approach, the assessment of acute food insecurity for a population of a defined geographical area is classified into five levels ranging from Minimal Food Insecurity to Stressed, Crisis, Emergency and Famine phases[4]. The expected priority response interventions of the different phases are translated into incremental actions in which additional humanitarian goals and objectives are considered for each subsequent phase. Accordingly, from phase one through phase five, humanitarian intervention goals are categorised into: building resilience and disaster risk reduction; protecting livelihood; reducing food consumption gaps and thereby acute malnutrition; saving lives and livelihoods; and preventing widespread mortality and total collapse of livelihoods, respectively. For the UN to officially declare a famine, the following three conditions must be validated: i) at least 20% of the population face extreme food shortages by having fewer than 2,100 kilocalories of food available per person per day; ii) more than 30% of the children under 5 are acutely malnourished and iii) two deaths are registered per day in every 10,000 people or four deaths per day in every 10,000 children caused by lack of food. The 2014 evolving tragedy of food insecurity has already been classified as emergency (IPC phase 4) implying that between 15% and 30% of the under-five children are severely malnourished and a crude death rate of 1–2/10,000/day have been registered, while many areas were classified to be in phase three of the IPC[5].

What Lessons the Past Somali Famines can Offer? 

 Since gaining independence in 1960, Somalia has been affected by three famine tragedies that have devastated the country and led to high levels of preventable deaths and widespread population destitution, vividly remembered as haunting catastrophic events by the nation. The pace, effectiveness and outcome results of the response interventions during the past three famines were shaped by the circumstances that have prevailed on the ground at each time. These tragic experiences offer important lessons to be learned that could help provide operational directions to the ongoing humanitarian relief operations of 2014. 

The 1974-1975 Famine: A Satisfactory Response to the Catastrophe

The 1974-1975 famine was the result of years of protracted drought, named by the affected victims as “Abaartii-dabadheer” or the “long-tailed drought”. The catastrophe affected close to one and a half million nomadic populations in Nugal, Sanag, Togdheer, Bari, Mudug and galgudud regions, with huge livestock losses estimated at about 2.5 million, the Togdheer region being the epicentre.  A total of 260,000 people were provided assistance in 20 government relief camps, while over one million were provided relief support outside the camps. In November 1974, a State of Emergency was declared by the government with the formation of a National Drought Relief Committee[6]. During this famine, the peace and security situations in the country was stable, with national and international humanitarian organization receiving full access to and presence on the ground. The humanitarian response was government led, for which the entire nation was mobilized with active participation of all government institutions; the armed forces and the national health system. The success of the relief operations was substantiated by the relatively limited loss of human lives, estimated at 18,000[7]. Of these 11,000 reached the camps in a terminal condition, while 7,000 deaths occurred outside the camps. The relief operations were swiftly followed by a rehabilitation strategy, during which a large number of the in-camp population were airlifted or transported by trucks and resettled as cultivators in the southern regions of the country, while a smaller number was organized into fishing cooperatives, providing all the support necessary for sustained socio-economic transformation. The resettlement operation was completed between June-August, 1975. The out-of-camp populations were encouraged to resume their nomadic life by raising their conserved livestock. The five big advantages of this response were the prominent government leadership; the humanitarian partners’ presence in the country; the easy access to the affected regions; the effective mobilization of relief operations and the adequate financing of the rehabilitations and resettlement interventions in response to the famine. 

The 1992 Famine: The Drought and Famine that Were Exacerbated by Civil War 

The 1992 famine was prompted by a severe drought occurring in the midst of a civil war, the Bay region of Somalia was the epicentre of this tragedy, along with the regions of Lower Juba; Lower Shabelle and Bakool. According to the UN, this famine claimed 220,000 lives. The civil war conflicts impeded the access of humanitarian lifesaving food aid to the famine affected populations. Two surveys conducted in Baidoa and Afgoye among the IDPs revealed an average daily crude mortality rate of 16·8 (95% Cl 14·6-19·1) per 10 000 population during the 232 days before the survey, 74% of these being children under 5 years of age, while in Afgoye, the crude mortality rate was 4·7(3·9-5·5) deaths per 10 000 per day[8]. These mortality rates were among the highest documented for a civilian population. The gravity of this situation led to the implementation of a range of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions to promote peace and facilitate the delivery of aid. Resolution 751 adopted in April 1992, prompted the formation of the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM). Among the UNOSOM delegated responsibilities was the specific task of lending support to the provision of humanitarian assistance and escorting their deliveries in and around the capital Mogadishu. On 28th August 1992, the UNOSOM mandate was expanded by UNSC in resolution 775, enabling the operation to protect food aid humanitarian convoys and distribution in the entire country. Following an excessive deterioration of the security situation, the UNSC adopted also on 3rd December 1992, Resolution 794 authorizing the creation of the UN’s United Task Force (UNITAF), predominantly consisting of a US contingent, named as "Operation Restore Hope". The force was to operate under the authority of Chapter VII of the UNSC that allows the use of force to maintain peace and ensure the delivery of food aid to the starving population. This task force transitioned in March 1993 to UNOSOM II, with the responsibility of maintaining security at ports, airports and lines of communication, as relevant for the humanitarian relief operations, in addition to the tasks of disarmament, reconciliation, along with a range of other state and nation building interventions. These forces helped to open the supply route from Mogadishu to Baidoa, with large amounts of food aid being safely transferred and distributed to the affected populations, with significant improvements in food security conditions. Regrettably, however the UNOSOM engagement in the envisioned disarmament and prevention of violence resumption mandate did not achieve its purpose, while diverting focus from the most urgent task of humanitarian aid relief. Consequently, the internal conflicts continued to plague the famine affected regions, hindering the humanitarian field operations and the continued flow and access of aid relief supplies to the population in need. These circumstances also annulled any opportunity for post-famine and post-drought rehabilitation and recovery, eliminating any opportunity to hinder the recurrence of this acute food insecurity in the future.

The 2011 famine: the gap between early warning and response leading to famine 

The 2011 famine was the worst to hit Somalia in 60 years and was first declared by the UN on 20th July 2011, after 11 months of repeated food insecurity early warning and surveillance alerts which regrettably were not translated into a matching humanitarian relief action[9]. The famine was initially declared in the agro-pastoral zones of Bakol region and in the entire Lower Shabelle region, while in August the same year, famine was also declared in some districts of Middle Shabelle region, in the IDP settlements of Afgoye and Mogadishu and in some areas of Gedo region, while Bay region was added to the list in September 2011. During this famine, the government of Somalia was still unable to mobilize any tangible response interventions, while the presence of humanitarian organizations on the ground was negligible. The latter is substantiated by the withdrawal of the largest single provider of food aid, WFP from South Central Somalia in January 2010, instigated by the repeated attacks of the humanitarian staff, and by the adverse consequences of the 10th March 2010 UN monitoring team report, demonstrating the diversion of a large proportion of WFP delivered food assistance away from its intended beneficiaries[10].

In November 2011, 17 UN agencies and international NGOs were also banned by Harakat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujahideen (Al-Shabaab) from operating in areas falling under their control, further hindering the access to famine affected populations7. These conditions have compromised the fundamental prerequisites for mobilizing an effective relief operation, namely the free access to and presence in the site of operations and the safe transfer and effective distribution of humanitarian assistance to the targeted beneficiaries. The delayed humanitarian response, the security threats posed and the field operational challenges contributed to this worst disaster Somalia ever witnessed in its recent history, with estimated deaths of about 260,000 of which 52% were children under the age of five years. These deaths were caused by starvation and disease in the period between October 2010 and April 2012. Of these fatalities 37% occurred in the region of Lower Shabelle, 23% in Benadir region and 9%, 8% and 7% in Middle Shabelle, Bay and Gedo regions respectively, while the remaining 16% of the deaths happened in the regions of Middle Jubba, Lower Jubba, Hiran and Galgaduud[11]. The factors that have influenced the tragic outcome of this famine included: the total loss of livelihood assets; the risks paused by the armed conflicts that have restricted population mobility in the famine affected areas; the large scale diversion of humanitarian food supplies; the non-presence and delayed response of the key humanitarian organizations. This famine can be viewed to a great extent as a tragedy, where the responsibility and accountability failure rested with a weak national government; absence of a fully capacitated  civil society organizations (CSOs) and disinclined international partners who were together unable to harness the momentum of the urgently needed humanitarian aid.     

Is Somali Heading again towards a Famine? 

Through the Strategic Response Plan (SRP) for Somalia, formerly known as UN consolidated Appeal Process, issued on 11 December 2013, a plan was formulated for 2014, estimating that 3.18 million people will require humanitarian assistance.  The statement of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released in May 2014, sounded the alarm on the looming disaster, where 857,000 Somalis were estimated to need urgent life-saving assistance and another two million were in the food security “stress phase”, i.e. the IPC level 2 of food insecurity. This tragedy was attributed to the drought exacerbated by the extremely scarce rainfall during the spring season (April-June); rising food prices and continued conflicts in many regions of the country. On 21st July this year, the Federal Government of Somalia formed a Ministerial Emergency Response Committee and described the humanitarian situation “as a precursor to the situation in 2011 in its intensity”.  According to FSNAU, the worst affected regions with deteriorated food security included Bakool, Gedo, Hiraan, Lower Shabelle and Middle Juba. It was also noted that the regions of Nugal and Bari of Puntland are experiencing a serious drought situation. On the 25th August, an inter-ministerial Committee was established by the Puntland government to coordinate the drought assessment and relief operations in the affected regions. According to FSNAU data, alarming malnutrition has been observed in many parts of Somalia and especially among the IDPs, with a global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate of 17.3 per cent, which is higher than the global emergency threshold of 15%, while severe acute malnutrition (SAM) rates of 5.5% were recorded, a degree exceeding the emergency phase threshold of 4.5%. On the 21st September 2014, the head of the UN mission in Somalia, in a press release to the Guardian newspaper expressed his concerns, stating, "In plain language we are concerned about the risk of a repetition of the famine of 2011," and outlined that more than a million people are just "one step below" famine, while another two million people are highly vulnerable to crisis.

Summarizing the lessons learnt: Characteristics of strengths and weaknesses

The three famine catastrophes that hit Somalia in 1975, 1992 and 2011 provide important lessons that the nation and the international community can consider in order to ensure that the current food security crisis in many regions of the country is effectively addressed and does not evolve into a famine of grave proportions. The following is a brief outline of some of the salient lessons learned:

·      The strong connection between a secure and peaceful environment and the desired full and successful access of the national and international humanitarian partners with relief support to the population in need was positively corroborated by the 1975 setting, where all forms of armed conflicts or communal disruptions were absent, and conversely by the 1992 and 2011 situation where armed conflicts led to the blockage of the main access routes contributed to the loss or diversion of a noticeable proportion of the delivered food aid

·       The essential role of the government coordination and leadership in disaster relief management activities is a major contributor to the success of these endeavours, as demonstrated by the 1975 famine response. This is an obligation where the national authorities have faltered and failed to uphold during the famines that hit the country in 1992 and 2011. 

·      The negative impact of civil war situations and factional conflicts on humanitarian aid relief can be realised from the 1992 scenario, where the passage of relief aid to the civilians in need was seriously obstructed, while the less effective multi-category UNOSOM II mandate, would have been best placed if staying focused exclusively on famine response 

·      The 2011 famine triggered by East Africa's worst drought for 60 years, will be remembered for the failure of national and international humanitarian partners to mobilize an early response action against the repeated warnings provided through the famine early warning systems

·      The absence of field presence of the humanitarian workers has been highly detrimental to the flow of vital information from the famine affected regions, that address situation assessments, local management of relief operations and ensuring the effective delivery of humanitarian food aid and essential health services as well as  the protection of the vulnerable population

Recommendations for Action: the Humanitarian Imperative to Prevent Famine

To save the lives of the drought affected population the following recommendations may be considered: 

·      Preventing the repetition of the delayed response scenario of 2011, with the imperative for the government and international partners to act before a full-scale famine hits the nation that leads to exceptionally high mortality

·      Creating a national humanitarian emergency drought fund, coordinated by the government, where the state machinery, different social groups, business community and the diaspora contribute to this nationwide effort

·      Creating a transparent and credible governance system for managing relief operations led by religious and other opinion leaders, whose actions are publicly shared and closely monitored by the government as a measure of shared accountability

·      Expediting the creation of local solutions through the local leaders to the current challenges of constrained access to the conflict-ridden drought affected areas

·      Recognizing that the drought and related severe food insecurity are affecting large geographical areas, predominantly from the Central and Southern regions of the country, while several regions from Puntland and Somaliland are in stress or in emergency phases of food insecurity, hence the need for a general coordination and collaboration efforts to optimise the efficiency of relief operations  

·      Promoting health as a bridge for peace, as following droughts and armed conflicts, ill-health and malnutrition are the primary causes of premature mortality. This has a strong correlation with worsened food insecurity, hence the need to focus on health and nutrition care with special  attention directed on maternal and child health, spearheaded by  immunization services, as well as the control of epidemics 

·      Negotiating periodic windows of peace opportunities with those bearing arms against the government inside the drought affected areas, with the aim to work out the announcement of coordinated ceasefires that allow the safe delivery of food aid and provision of emergency nutrition and health care services

·      Creating a national drought policy with the formation of Emergency Preparedness, Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council at federal, state and regional level, with medium and long term plans that include the building of disaster response capacities; drought risk identification, monitoring and early warning; promoting agricultural growth by reducing threat to peace; fighting deforestation with control of the lucrative charcoal production; regulating pastoral lands’ use and planning the development of scarce water resources and floods and cyclones’ warning and management systems

·         The international humanitarian and development partners must rise to the occasion, along with the government and CSOs and provide the urgent and necessary relief assistance to this severe food insecurity, and support the post crisis recovery with the needed technical support 

·          The rain showers of the current autumn minor rainy season, will not bring any immediate change on the agricultural and livestock production systems, hence the urgent need to actively pursue the humanitarian food aid relief in order to save lives   



The current tragedy is primarily attributed to the severe drought, exacerbated by the persistent armed conflicts in many of the affected regions that has led to weakened food production; siege of the relief aid passage routes, limited market access and restricted trade that has significantly reduced the labour purchasing power[12]. Through this paradigm, it is evident that the productive livelihood assets and coping capacities of the population are severely depressed. If serious and robust interventions are not mobilized, the population may within few months, transit from crisis and emergency phases to the final catastrophic famine phase. The characterization of each of the five IPC phases denotes that at least 20% of the population must match the set respective definitions, which accordingly provide implicit thresholds for undertaking the right response. If the 20% numerical thresholds are strictly followed, the right response may be denied to sufficiently large population groups that fall short of this measure. Additionally, in the case of delayed or slow response, the vulnerability of the poorest households could rapidly speed up the humanitarian blight, resulting in massive loss of lives, predominantly among young children. Consequently, there is a humanitarian imperative for the government, CSOs, the Somali Diaspora and international partners to act urgently on this progressing food and nutrition insecurity, along with the provision of essential health services to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

 Dr Khalif Bile Mohamud M.D.; Ph.D.

[1] Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit - Somalia Acute malnutrition persists in Somalia while 870,000 people remain food insecure. September 3, 2013. http://www.fsnau.org.

[2] 2014 Humanitarian Needs Overview Somalia. https://docs.unocha.org/sites/dms/CAP/HNO_2014_Somalia.pdf

[3] Drazen Jorgic. Somalia donors must act now to avoid famine 'catastrophe': U.N; Reuters, August 29, 2014.

[4] Integrated Food Security Phase Classification: Technical Manual Version 2.0. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome. 2012


[5]  “Acute malnutrition persists in Somalia while 870,000 people remain food insecure”. Technical release, FSNAU. September 3, 2013, Nairobi/Washington

[6] Moamed Haji Mukhtar. Historical Dictionary of Somalia. SCARE CROW PRESS, INC, USA 2003 page 67.

[7] Dennis Lewycky, Susan L. White. An African Abstract: A Brief Background to Issues and Events. Manitoba Council for International Cooperation, 1979 - Africa page 73.


[8] P.S. Moore, A.A. Marfin, L.E. Quenemoen, B.D. Gessner, D.S. Miller, M.J. Toole, Y.S. Ayub, K.M. Sullivan, Mortality rates in displaced and resident populations of central Somalia during 1992 famine. The Lancet. Volume 341, Issue 8850, 10 April 1993, 935–938

[9] Andrew Seal and Rob Bailey. The 2011 Famine in Somalia: lessons learnt from a failed response? Conflict and health. 2013; 7:22. Published online Oct 30, 2013. doi:  10.1186/1752-1505-7-22

[10] Investigation on WFP Operations In Somalia: Addendum. WFP/EB.A/2010/6-K/1/Add.1 25 May 2010. ftp://ftp.fao.org/unfao/bodies/fc/FC133/9772E.pdf

[11] Mortality among populations of southern and central Somalia affected by severe food insecurity and famine during 2010-2012. FAO/FSNAU and FEWS NET. http://www.fsnau.org/in-focus/study-report-mortality-among-populations-southern-and-central-somalia-affected-severe-food  


[12] Restricted trade is preventing food from reaching some southern Somalia towns. http://www.fews.net/east-africa/somalia/alert/july-17-2014

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