Famine has come to Somalia. While there has been no official declaration, the UN’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, said last week: “I have no doubt that we are seeing famine on our watch in Somalia.” In an interview with Al Jazeera, he decried the injustice of the climate crisis-induced disaster. “Nobody in Somalia is responsible for the catastrophe – this fourth failed rainy season, this fifth and sixth to come".
A famine in 2011 killed nearly 260,000 people in Somalia, and 100,000 of those people died before famine was officially declared. The same is happening again – and there are fears that it will be worse this time. Griffiths warned that people left behind could be in even more desperate situations than those who have managed to reach camps for the internally displaced. “When we get to them we will see scenes that will make the current images we are seeing look pale,” he said.
According to the latest UN figures, at least 41% of Somalia’s population of nearly 16 million people will face acute food insecurity between now and December.
The numbers are hard to grasp. But the suffering is real, as reporters from the Mogadishu-based all-female media team Bilan found. They visited three areas in the south of the country to find out how the crisis is affecting different communities.
The worst hit are those who fled their homes recently. Families arriving at El-Jaalle, a makeshift camp on the southern coast lack even the most basic facilities for survival: water and healthcare. In Baidoa, some families are receiving support while newer arrivals have nothing. Some of the internally displaced want to return to their homes but fear recriminations from the Islamist insurgents al-Shabaab, who punish people for moving to government-controlled areas.
The situation is not uniformly catastrophic. In Afgoye, a town near the capital, Mogadishu, crops are still growing but farmers are worried. They are not immune to the effects of the drought, which are being exacerbated by rising costs of fuel, fertiliser and seeds. As one Afgoye farmer puts it: “Everybody is a loser in this situation".
Nimo Hassan Sagaar, 28, had eight children when drought forced her to leave her home in Somalia’s Lower Juba region. Now she has seven.
Her youngest, Moktar Ali, was 18 months old when he died from malnutrition during her three-day journey by foot and car to the El-Jaalle camp, about 12 miles from the regional capital, the coastal city of Kismayo. Her fellow passengers, complete strangers, helped her bury her child in the bush.
Sagaar’s first husband was killed by al-Shabaab, which controls vast swathes of territory in southern Somalia. She later remarried.
After thousands of people fled drought and violence in March – to the outskirts of Kismayo, the regional government allowed them to build shelters on an open patch of land. There are no trees in the El-Jaalle camp, where fierce winds tear apart the hastily constructed, flimsy shelters made from branches, cloth and plastic sheeting.
At first, local people brought them whatever food and water they could spare. Now they receive some rice and beans from the government and aid organisations, but it is not enough.
One of the main problems for Sagaar and the other 2,300 families in the El-Jaalle camp is the lack of water.
"It takes me one hour to walk to and from the river to collect water,” says Hinda Ahmed Dahir. “I carry 20 litres of water on my back. It runs out quickly. The water is dirty and sometimes makes us sick when we drink it.
"After a very difficult birth here in the camp, I couldn’t wash the blood off my body for three days as there was no water,” she says.
Lack of any kind of healthcare in or near the camp has caused serious problems for Falhado Sheikhow Sanweyne. Her baby son was bitten by a snake, his limp body covered in red swellings. “I hope my baby will get well,” she says, “because I couldn’t get medicine at the hospital".
She added that returning to her former life is not an option. “I used to have 400 cows,” says Sanweyne. “Now I have one. It will be impossible for me to continue life as a nomad as it would take years to replenish my stock".
With Somalia on track for a fifth failed rainy season, there have been no crops in the fields for more than two years. Some people in El-Jaalle say they will return to their farms when the rains come, but it is likely many of them will be stuck in the camp for years.
There is also fear of returning to areas under the control of al-Shabaab. The militants have tried to stop people from leaving their homes, accusing them of supporting the government and acting as spies. They are terrified of being punished on their return.
During Somalia’s repeated droughts, people who can no longer live off the land often end up on the outskirts of Baidoa, capital of Somalia’s South West state. By July 2022 there were 498 verified camps for the displaced, with dozens more informal settlements. New families arrive every day, forced to abandon their homes, after a fourth consecutive failed rainy season.
Many of those who have been in Baidoa for a while are receiving help. The local population, as well as Somali and international humanitarian agencies, have been providing food, materials to make shelters and some healthcare provisions. Children and other malnourished people are treated in stabilisation centres.
Baidoa has been a key destination for hungry families for decades as the rural populations in surrounding areas are those most vulnerable to drought. The city is used to doing what it can to support those in need. There are some long-establishing humanitarian agencies in the city so there is a degree of preparedness and infrastructure, unlike some other parts of Somalia.
Asha Ali Adan and her seven children fled to Baidoa eight months ago from Dinsoor, more than 75 miles away. When she arrived, local people gave her food and plastic sheeting to cover a small shelter she made from the branches of a tree. Then, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) gave her more food, plastic sheeting and cash.
"We receive more help than before,” says Adan. “I have an ID card, which enables me to get cash from aid agencies. I receive $140 [£126] a month from the NRC and the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development [Acted, a French aid organisation], which helps to pay for food, medicine and other essentials. Health workers give us medicine and medical care when we need it. Now my children have measles and I have not received help yet to care for them but I believe it will come".
Hindiya Hussein Ali, a widow, has not been in Baidoa for as long as Adan. She also came from Dinsoor with her five children. Ali had a small shop in Dinsoor but had to close it because she could no longer afford to buy stock due to high inflation. As so many of her customers lost their livestock and farms to the drought, they could no longer afford to buy things from her shop.
"We get enough help to survive in the IDP [internally displaced people] camp,” says Ali. “World Vision, Islamic Relief and the Norwegian Refugee Agency have given me money, plastic sheeting and food. Eighty dollars is sent to my phone every month, which helps me keep myself and children going".
There has been some rain in parts of south-western Somalia and many people in Baidoa’s IDP camps want to return to their home areas to try to rebuild their farms and livestock herds. One of them is Keerey Mohamad Keerow, who came with her children from the Bakool region, where she lived a nomadic life.
"I had 28 goats and 13 camels,” she says. “My animal herd was the lifeline of my family. Now they are all dead and we would have also died if we had stayed in the bush. All I want to do is return to my nomadic lifestyle and rebuild my herd from zero".
But, like Keerow, most people in the camps are reluctant to return to their fields or nomadic life for fear of al-Shabaab, who punish them for moving to government-controlled areas, even temporarily. They also fear that their sons will be forced to become fighters for al-Shabaab, which is taking boys as young as 13.
"For now, I will stay in the Baidoa camp,” says Keerow. “I am doing OK here. I have been given food and materials to build a shelter. The monthly … payment from the aid agencies is keeping us going".
Many of the new arrivals, such as Ali Mohammed Kheyr, are not receiving the same level of support.
He comes from one of more than 900 nomadic families who arrived in Baidoa fleeing drought and intense fighting between forces loosely allied with the government and al-Shabaab in Qansahdhere, Buur Dhuxunle and Dinsoor in the Bay and Bakool regions.
"My family of seven arrived in Moorogaabey IDP camp a few weeks ago,” says Kheyr. “We have no food, water, shelter or healthcare. We need urgent help."
Kheyr describes how women have to walk for hours to collect water, which they carry back to the camp on their backs. “What they bring is not enough for their families,” he says.
"I am disabled, with crippled legs, so I don’t have the power to help my family,” says Kheyr. “My children are sick and there is no medical care. When we lived as pastoralists we were self-sufficient. Here we cannot get through our daily life".
Fartun Adan Mohamed, 14, is one of the most recent arrivals in Baidoa. With her parents and four younger siblings, she trekked the 50 miles from her home area of Rabdhure in Bakool. So far, the family has received no assistance.
"We had a beautiful life in Rabdhure,” says Mohamed. “We had 50 goats. We had water, food, shelter and education. When this year’s drought hit, all our goats died. We had nothing to eat or drink. I gave up my good life and my school.
Despite Somalia enduring its worst drought in four decades, the district of Afgoye remains green. While livestock die and crops fail in most other parts of the country, farmers here continue to grow food to sell in the capital, Mogadishu, about 17 miles away.
But the region has not escaped the effects of four failed rainy seasons. Falling water levels in the Shabelle River, which runs through Afgoye, have forced farmers to reassess what they plant.
"I cannot grow all my usual crops,” says Saida Mohamed Hassan, a farmer who lives in Afgoye with her husband and five children. “Although we are blessed compared with people living in other parts of Somalia, we face our own challenges".
Hassan is planning to grow fewer varieties of produce this season, forgoing water-hungry crops such as bananas and tomatoes. “I will only plant sesame, maize and watermelon,” she says. “I usually grow many different types of fruit and vegetables but they will shrivel and die.”
Afgoye’s farmers are facing other challenges this year. The war in Ukraine and lingering supply-chain problems after the coronavirus pandemic have led to high inflation and shortages of essential items. They cannot afford to buy seeds, fertiliser or fuel to pump water from the river.
"The sharp increase in the cost of fuel has pushed up the price of transport from Afgoye to the capital,” says Hassan. “My husband has to pay more to take our produce to sell in Mogadishu’s Hamar Weyne market. So he has to increase the prices of the food he sells, which many people cannot afford. Everybody is a loser in this situation".
One group of young women, who all study agriculture in Mogadishu and have a small farm in Afgoye, are determined to keep going. The Somali Agriculture Girls Association continue to grow and sell spinach, salad and chillis, using the proceeds to fund their education.
People in Afgoye are facing a further pull on their finances from al-Shabaab. The new government of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has launched a new offensive against the group, with clan militias known as the Ma’awisley proving an especially effective fighting force.
With its finances already stretched by the effects of drought and inflation, al-Shabaab has started demanding higher taxes to fund its war effort. The group is active in parts of Afgoye and has threatened to kill farmers and businesspeople if they do not pay the higher levy.
The farmers are afraid that the fighting will spread to their fields. There has been an intensification in troop movements by the Somali National Army and al-Shabaab has stepped up attacks in the area in recent months.
There has been rain in some parts of the district but some farmers are afraid to return to their fields, especially those in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. The militants have killed people who come from government-controlled areas to those under their control, accusing them of being infidels.