Famine Looms as Wars Rend Horn of Africa – By Jeffry Gettleman, New York Times

May 17th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

DAGAARI, Somalia — The global food crisis has arrived at Safia Ali’s hut.

She cannot afford rice or wheat or powdered milk anymore.

At the same time, a drought has decimated her family’s herd of goats, turning their sole livelihood into a pile of bleached bones and papery skin.

The result is that Ms. Safia, a 25-year-old mother of five, has not eaten in a week. Her 1-year-old son is starving too, an adorable, listless boy who doesn’t even respond to a pinch. (more…)

DAGAARI, Somalia — The global food crisis has arrived at Safia Ali’s hut.

She cannot afford rice or wheat or powdered milk anymore.

At the same time, a drought has decimated her family’s herd of goats, turning their sole livelihood into a pile of bleached bones and papery skin.

The result is that Ms. Safia, a 25-year-old mother of five, has not eaten in a week. Her 1-year-old son is starving too, an adorable, listless boy who doesn’t even respond to a pinch.

Somalia — and much of the volatile Horn of Africa, for that matter — was about the last place on earth that needed a food crisis. Even before commodity prices started shooting up around the globe, civil war, displacement and imperiled aid operations had pushed many people here to the brink of famine.

But now with food costs spiraling out of reach and the livestock that people live off of dropping dead in the sand, villagers across this sun-blasted landscape say hundreds of people are dying of hunger and thirst.

This is what happens, economists say, when the global food crisis meets local chaos.

“We’re really in the perfect storm,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia economist and top United Nations adviser, who recently visited neighboring Kenya.

There has been a collision of troubles throughout the region: skimpy rainfall, disastrous harvests, soaring food prices, dying livestock, escalating violence, out-of-control inflation, and shrinking food aid because of many of these factors.

Across the border in Ethiopia, in the war-racked Ogaden region, the situation sounds just as dire. In Darfur, the United Nations has had to cut food rations because of a rise in banditry that endangers aid deliveries. Kenya is looking vulnerable, too.

A recent headline in one of Kenya’s leading newspapers blared, “25,000 villagers risk starving,” referring to a combination of drought, higher fertilizer and fuel costs and postelection violence that displaced thousands of farmers. “These places aren’t on the brink,” Mr. Sachs said. “They’ve gone over the cliff.”

Many Somalis are trying to stave off starvation with a thin gruel made from mashed thorn-tree branches called jerrin. Some village elders said their children were chewing on their own lips and tongues because they had no food. The weather has been merciless — intensely hot days, followed by cruelly clear nights.

This week, Saida Mohamed Afrah, another emaciated mother, left her two children under a tree and went scavenging for food and water. When she came back two hours later, her children were dead.

She had little to say about the drought. “I just wish my children had died in my lap,” she said.

The United Nations has declared a wide swath of central Somalia a humanitarian emergency, the final stage before a full-blown famine. But Christian Balslev-Olesen, the head of Unicef operations in Somalia, said the situation was likely to become a famine in the coming weeks.

Famine is defined by several criteria, including malnutrition, mortality, food and water scarcity and destruction of livelihood. Some of those factors, like an acute malnutrition rate of 24 percent in some areas of Somalia, have already soared past emergency thresholds and are closing in on famine range. Mr. Balslev-Olesen said Unicef recently received reports of people dying from hunger and thirst. It is hard to know exactly how many, he said, though local elders have put the number in the mid-hundreds.

“We have all the indicators in place for a catastrophe,” Mr. Balslev-Olesen said. “We cannot call it that yet. But I’m very much concerned it’s just a matter of weeks until we have to.”

Many people already consider Somalia a catastrophe. It has some of the highest malnutrition rates anywhere in the world — in a good year. The collapse of the central government in 1991 plunged Somalia into a spiral of clan-driven bloodshed that it has yet to pull out of. The era began with a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The consensus now is that all the same elements of the early 1990s — high-intensity conflict, widespread displacement and drought — are lining up again, and at a time of the biggest spike in global food prices in more than 30 years. The United Nations says 2.6 million Somalis need assistance and the number could soon swell to 3.5 million, nearly half the estimated population. If there is excellent rain or a sudden peace, the crisis may ease. But weather projections and even the rosiest political forecasts do not predict that.

Whether Somalia slips into a famine may depend on aid, and right now, that does not look so good either. Eleven aid workers have been killed this year, and United Nations officials say Somalia is as complicated — and dangerous — as ever.

Beyond the warlord and clan fighting, there is now a budding conflict with Western aid workers. The Bush administration has said that terrorists with Al Qaeda are hiding in Somalia, sheltered by local Islamists, and has gone after them with American airstrikes. But a recent American attack on an Islamist leader in Dusa Marreb, a town in the center of the drought zone, has spawned a wave of revenge threats against Western aid workers. The United Nations and private aid organizations say it is now too dangerous to expand their life-saving work in Dusa Marreb.

“We’re in a different contextual environment right now,” said Chris Smoot, the program director for World Vision aid projects in Somalia. He said there were anti-Western “rogue elements that can shut you down, in any shape or form, at any time.”

Aid is also a serious problem in the contested Ogaden region of Ethiopia, across the border from here. A recent report written by a contractor working for the United States Agency for International Development said the drought there was “clearly worsening” and that the response by the Ethiopian government, one of America’s closest allies in Africa, was “absolutely abysmal.”

This may be no accident. The Ethiopian government is struggling with an insurgency in the Ogaden, and the report said that “food is clearly being used as a weapon,” with the government starving out rebel areas, while a mysterious warehouse of American-donated food was discovered across the road from an Ethiopian Army base. “The U.S.G.,” meaning the United States government, “cannot in good conscience allow the food operation to continue in its current manifestation,” the report said. “This situation would be absolutely shameful in any other country.”

The report was not made public, though a copy was provided to The New York Times. When asked about it, a senior American aid official characterized the report as “just a snapshot and one person’s observations and impressions.” But the senior aid official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said: “We’re not saying there’s not a crisis in the Ogaden. We’re not saying the Ethiopian response has been satisfactory. But some progress has been made. And we need more.”

Ethiopian officials declined comment and have denied human rights abuses in the Ogaden.

All across this region, one of the poorest of the poor, people are left to the mercies of the desert. In central Somalia, for instance, fewer than five inches of rain have fallen in the past year and a half, aid officials say. The winds are harsh, throats are dry. This area, like much of the Horn of Africa, is too arid for farming. The people here, in lonely outposts like Dagaari, survive by grazing goats, sheep, cattle and camels, selling the animals for money they use to buy food.

“But nobody wants a skinny goat,” explained Abdul Kadir Nur, a herder in Dagaari.

That was about all he had left after the drought killed 400 of his 450 animals.

Not far from the pile of goat bones is a circle of stones. It is the grave of his toddler son.

Mr. Abdul Kadir said the boy had died of hunger and that he had been placed in his grave at an angle, “so he can sleep.”

He walked a few more steps, his flip-flops digging into the crunchy earth. He arrived at Ms. Safia’s hut, where several people were peering in the doorway, watching her sweat on the dirt floor. The nearest hospital was only a half hour away, but nobody had any money to pay for a ride.

“She will most likely die,” an elder said and walked away.

Ms. Safia’s son seemed to sense that. He curled up next to his mother while he still could, his face pressed against the damp cloth that covered her. Her ribs moved up and down, up and down, in quick shallow breaths.

  1. Destachew
    | #1

    Somalia`s case can not be different from Eritrea or Dejibuti`s cases. This tiny countries were systematically pushed to economically unjustified artificial independence by foreign powers to serve foreign hidden agendas merely for their geographic strategic, but now the people are impoerished beyond imagination and dieing of mass starvation and exterem form of poverity. These countries do not even have meaningful GDP nor meaningful commodity to secure foreign exchange and purchse, and their mere existence is to serve foreign hidden agenda in the name of nationalism/country. What is worse and tragic is these countries lossing its youngest and brightest to indirect forced immigration, since these countries do not have no hope or viable economic means to employee and give security to its own multitude impoverished unemployed youth.
    Self determination and irrational nationalism that charged with hallow emotionalism may not see the pitfall and cruelity that economic reality imposes and brings.

  2. Dametw
    | #2

    Well Mr. some how some where you make it sound theses countries are any different than Ethiopia. The only thing that makes Ethiopians different is tolerance and the indigenous institutions that hold people together and create a space and relative stability.

    If conventional economic measure is taken, all the countries, if you call them one, are by far better off than Ethiopia.

    Regardless of your political persuasion, there is one undeniable fact that is common to all the countries in the region are ruled by thuggish tyrants, and that is the single causes of why people are starving. Blaming it on nature, education, resources etc. defies every historical fact. When the tyrants disappear and any half way accountable governance is established famine disappears.

    We can argue/excuse one tyrants or another and blame it on one thing or another, but until we come to our senses to agree no tyrant is acceptable to rule Africa, we will voluntarily invite the old or a new colonizer to come in and take it over, after all we can not starve half of the population and claim we are independent nations.

  3. Destachew
    | #3


    Indeed,You understand like damtew and You sound like damtew.

    You people never fail to amaze me. You wanted to be polician but you guys got no clue whatsoever how to interperet and differ political message from general theory of economics and social theories. That for sure telles me why our country is so backward. To begin with article did not concentrate in one country except for making a reference,but you Mr. Damtew degraded the message to minimal.
    When i was talking self determination and nationalism, i was not implying it as simplistic form, but as general idea or theory, to challenge the misleading nature of self determination vs economic reality.
    Regardless, even with your narrow understanding and conclusion of my topic, you failed misrable to see the postential with each country, eventhough those three countries i mensioned have no known economic future or potentional in the near future. In the other hand, Ethiopias potential may greater than almost all east African countries. even the last 15 years only Ethiopia had registered unprecedented economic growth,even though its potential in many of its sectors still remain untouched.

  4. Dametw
    | #4

    Wondeme, when you start with “you people” you are making noise where there is none and when it is not necessary. We have been talking about potential or one theory or another for centuries but noting happened. This self delusion of potential i.e. natural resources is not given or static, but a manifestation of the idea that self subsistence is the means to an end-a very insulting and degrading way of seeing the potential of millions of people and reducing them at a mercy of some guru like yours to come up with a solution. It has been tried and failed.

    You can not argue on the same theory over and over again and cheat yourself some miracle will happen by the time your theory come to fruition. What I said and never been tried is for the people to draw their own fate by self governance. On that theory, which is proven to be workable, you fail short.

    I may not be a guru like you portrayed yourself to be, but potential in your head is way off the target than what the world economy registered. You should see growth and potential differently than self subsistence. In fact, unlike your theory tangible resources are potential growth is defied by all countries, including Israel, South Korea, Twain, Singapore, Japan, and all Scandinavian countries. And all the countries you claim to have potential are at the bottom. And what do all have in common, they are ruled by a tyrants while the others are self governed. Here goes you theory.

    You went on to say, Ethiopian economic growth was unprecedented in the last 15 years. Do not read statistic that suite your argument, the real statistic says Somalia with no central government, no much “resources”, no stability have better standard of living than Ethiopia. How could it be? Do not fit statistic or economic theory to fit your imagination.

    You want to exploit the potential, (tangible, and intangible) resources of a country? set them free. From I can gather, what you call your general theory of economics and social theories” setting people free is not your cap of tea. Can you explain to us why you skipped it.

  5. Shaleka Amare
    | #5


    How could a hopless poor countries like Eritrea,Dejibuti and Somalia become better than Ethiopia, when 4% of its population left the country within the last six years period ? ?
    Not only that these three poor trio countries do not even have no manufacturing sector or suffiecient agricultural sector to feed its 36% of its population consumption. Not only that, non these three countries have hydro power plant to produce power to support futuire manufacturing or to meet other hydro electric demands. They can not build one either, since they do not have no flowing river. So far these three hopless countries using electric generator that operates with oil to produce minimal output, fact is speaking from practical point present and future economics views these three countries can not be qualified to be called as countries, since they do not have what it require to be a country. In the other hand Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing country in that region, since Ethiopia brimmed with endless unexplored opportunity of potentials, even the hydro electric capacity now will surpass the country demand by 2011, and these excess hydro will be one of ethiopia major export, which countries like Kenya,Dejibuti,Sudan,Eritrea,somalia land and somalia will be begging to buy.

  6. Mulugheta
    | #6

    Shaleka Amare
    Eritrea never received any food aid since 2004 after they proclaimed ‘self reliance’ and expelled USAID and all “humanitarians”,in the other hand look Ethiopia was and still the major aid receiver country in Africa, how you do explain that? if you think about hydro electric power…sufficient agricultural sector…
    No matter what the reason people want to go foreign country for better life from all Africa including Ethiopia (if you go no far than Djibouti and Yemen to see how many Ethiopian are there, in inhumane way of life)
    these are facts Shaleka so don’t read only Ethiopian papers, it will be helpful if you try to discover other alternative ways of information to understand better what is going on in our region.

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