Number of acutely malnourished children in Somalia up by 50% since year’s start

A woman holding her young malnourished baby queues for food at the Badbado camp for Internally Displaced Persons, July 2011.

There are now 1.4 million children facing acute malnutrition in Somalia, a 50 percent increase since the start of the year, according to UNICEF.

The U.N. agency is concerned by what it calls the “triple threat of drought, disease and displacement” Somali children face. More than 600,000 people left their homes following the failed rain season in November. As many as 8,000 people are displaced daily because of the drought. All the factors contribute to and exacerbate a potential hunger crisis that threatens to become a famine in some regions.

“This drought is affecting everybody,” a Somali woman living near the border with Ethiopia told the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “People simply are not buying as many things anymore. Sometimes it is because people are not making as much money because of their businesses affected by the drought. Other times it is because they are saving to help their family in rural areas.”

More than 6 million people, roughly half of the country’s population, need humanitarian assistance, according to the U.N.

Humanitarian groups worry about the danger posed by malnutrition and diseases like cholera and measles. Children are particularly vulnerable, as preventable and treatable diseases can suddenly turn deadly. Diarrhea and measles were the leading killers of children during the 2011 famine in Somalia, according to UNICEF.

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“It is a vicious circle, it is not just a lack of food that leads to malnutrition,” UNICEF Chief of Communications Susannah Price told Humanosphere.

That is why the group is working to provide safe drinking water. UNICEF works in tandem with the World Food Program to address the two greatest needs – water and food. The famine in 2011 that killed more than 200,000 people was isolated in the southern part of the country. This time around, all of Somalia is affected by the drought. Some families that stayed put six years ago have left their homes this time around, said Price.

The fact that people are leaving their homes makes work more difficult. Families are vulnerable while traveling to refugee or internal displacement camps. The influx of people can overwhelm humanitarian assistance, especially when there is not enough money and resources to adequately respond.

On the other hand, the al-Shabab insurgency that limited access to parts of Somalia in 2011 suffered major defeats in recent years, making it easier for humanitarian groups to reach more people.

“Any vulnerable people you can reach or any new areas we can get to has a huge knock-on effect,” Price said. “The idea is to reach as many people in the areas where they are, so they do not become displaced.”

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Somalia’s humanitarian response is halfway funded for 2017, making it the best-funded country among the four experiencing or at risk of famine. The early funding is making a difference. Somalia is on track to avoid famine because of the early availability of donor funds and more proactive humanitarian response – something that did not happen in 2011.

“We had a big scale up, but we have to continue that,” Price said. “One of our worries is that there has been some rain, which is welcome but brings some problems. Livestock, for example, is more vulnerable.”

But $435 million available out of the needed $854 million is a significant gap. UNICEF alone needs $148 million to continue doing its work and reach more people. Even with the limitations it helped set up and support 330 new nutrition centers – doubling the number of children treated for malnutrition. Without more money, it will be hard to open more centers and carry out projects like providing safe drinking water at schools and administering emergency vaccinations.

“We are urging the donors to keep up the funding levels and for them to see that gains have been made,” Price said. “Because it is very easy in Somalia to fall back.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.