Only a “massive” and immediate scaling-up of funds and humanitarian relief can save Somalia from famine, a UN spokesperson has warned, as aid workers report children starving to death “before our eyes” amid rapidly escalating levels of malnutrition.
In a message to G7 leaders who are meeting from Sunday in Germany, Michael Dunford, the World Food Programme’s (WFP) regional director for east Africa, said governments had to donate urgently and generously if there was to be any hope of avoiding catastrophe in the Horn of Africa country.
“We need money and we need it now,” said Dunford. “Will we able to warn [a famine in Somalia]? Unless there is … a massive scaling-up from right now, it won’t be possible, quite frankly. The only way, at this point, is if there is a massive investment in humanitarian relief, and all the stakeholders, all the partners, come together to try to warn this.”
The Horn of Africa has suffered four consecutive failed rainy seasons and is experiencing its worst drought in four decades, a climate shock exacerbated by ongoing conflict and price rises caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Across the whole of East Africa, 89 million people are now considered “acutely food insecure” by the WFP, a number that has grown by almost 90% in the past year.
“Unfortunately, I do not see [that rate of growth] slow down. If anything, it seems to be accelerating,” said Dunford.
Last year, the UK and other G7 leaders promised to provide $7bn (£5.7bn) to help countries prevent famine, but appeals for east Africa have not managed to raise enough funds to stave off hunger.
Now those same leaders are being urged to commit to an immediate funding package as Somalia, the worst-affected country, descends into catastrophe. By September, at least 213,000 people in the worst-hit areas are expected to be facing famine, according to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report.
On a recent visit to the country, Claire Sanford, deputy humanitarian director of Save the Children, said she met mothers who had already buried multiple children in the last year, and whose surviving children were now suffering severe malnutrition. One acutely malnourished three-month-old baby whom Sanford met “never made it through the night, and we heard of a number of stories where that was the case”.
“I can honestly say in my 23 years of responding to humanitarian crisis, this is by far the worst I’ve seen, particularly in terms of the level of impact on children,” she said. “The starvation that my colleagues and I witnessed in Somalia has escalated even faster than we feared.”
In 2011, Somalia experienced a famine that killed more than 250,000 people, mostly children, but Sanford said many of the people she met said the conditions now were even worse.
“We have genuinely failed as an international community that we have allowed the situation to get to the extent it is at the moment. In 2011, we vowed as a community that we would never, ever let this happen again. And yet we have failed in that promise,” she added.
Dunford said inadequate funding had hampered efforts to learn from the 2011 famine. “We are seeing children dying before our eyes, seeing populations that have lost their livelihoods. It’s not that we didn’t learn the lessons of 2011; there was a lot of very good learning from that crisis. It’s just we haven’t been able to implement it to the extent required because of the lack of funding.”
In April, the UN had received only 3% of funds for its $6bn appeal for Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan.
Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB, said the current crisis was partly due to the British government’s “compassion failure” and decision to slash the overseas aid budget by £4.6bn last year.
According to the latest IPC assessment for Somalia, an estimated 1.5 million under-fives face acute malnutrition by the end of the year, including 386,400 who are likely to be severely malnourished. Those numbers are only expected to go up.