Somalia: Sharp spike in cholera cases as drought wreaks havoc

A 15-month-old child is brought to a hospital in Garowe, Somalia, by his mother Laylo and his father Mohamed, suffering malnutrition and related complications. (Credit: Tom Pilston/Save the Children)

NAIROBI — Despite dire warnings recently from humanitarian agencies, thousands of children remain severely malnourished and remain vulnerable to cholera, diarrhea and other diseases in Somalia; the international community is not prepared.

About half of Somalia’s population – 6.2 million people – need humanitarian assistance. More than 200,000 people are displaced as a result of the current drought, causing a further strain on contaminated water supplies and increasing cholera rate.

Of those, Save the Children estimates that about 1 million Somali children will become malnourished this year, with almost 200,000 at risk of death from severe acute malnutrition.

As the drought continues to worsen – and the threat of famine looms large – the number of cholera cases continue to rise sharply as water supplies gets further contaminated; this is already an issue in many parts of Somalia where only 25 percent of the population has access to clean, reliable water.

“In the last two months, we had 7,731 cases of cholera with 183 people dying. Just last week – 1,352 cases of cholera and 38 people dying.  It’s a process in acceleration,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at a press conference in Mogadishu last week, joining in calls for funding for the crisis to be met.

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With chronic malnutrition on the rise, more children will suffer from preventable diseases like cholera and diarrhea if humanitarian actors fail to act in time.

“Weak and hungry people are much less able fight off disease. This outbreak demonstrates again the need for an urgent response to the crisis, offering both the rapid provision of the finances needed and safe access to affected people,” ActionAid Head of Humanitarian Response Mike Noyes told Humanosphere.

More than a month ago, the U.N. warned that the international community could only avert humanitarian catastrophe in the country only if an “immediate and massive” response were put in place.

But so far the response is only half funded, prompting concern.

The U.N. and humanitarian agencies are keen to avoid a repeat of the 2011 drought when the international community was criticized for responding too slowly to a “preventable” crisis;  260,000 people died as a result of the drought between 2010-2012. Similar numbers are expected unless the international community raises more funding for the crisis.

Despite warnings from the past, and fears that the drought is more severe and protracted than in 2011, some worry that the international community is tarrying once again.

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“Given the weight of evidence, the scale of suffering and the memory of 2011, the international community’s response to the crisis facing Somalia’s children is indefensible and unforgivable,” Save the Children CEO Kevin Watkins said in a statement.

“The surge in deaths during the 2011 drought happened in April – and the drought was less severe then,” Watkins said in the statement. “The international community ignored the early warning signs, failed to act decisively and waited until July to declare a famine. They are now repeating all of the mistakes from the 2011 playbook.”

With an upcoming barren rainy season expected, the situation is dire. Humanitarian agencies remain poised to act despite the funding shortfall.

“All these reasons justify a massive response. We have things prepared on the ground but we need financial support from the international community,” Watkins said in the statement.

Just last week, Somali President Mohamed Farmajo – whose recent election Guterres praised as a “moment of hope” for Somalia – declared the drought a “national disaster,” urgently appealing to the international community to help respond to the crisis.

Unless more funding is promised to the drought appeal in Somalia, it is likely that cholera rates will continue to rise.

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com