Hunger in Somalia is putting "a child per minute" into hospitals

Hamdi Yusuf, a malnourished child, is held by her mother in Dollow, Somalia, September 21, 2022. / Credit: Jerome Delay/AP
Hamdi Yusuf, a malnourished child, is held by her mother in Dollow, Somalia, September 21, 2022. / Credit: Jerome Delay/AP

Johannesburg — Aid workers are sounding the alarm over an intensifying humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia, where officials are expected to soon declare the second famine in just over a decade. Aid workers tell CBS News that rampant drought in the east African nation has already sparked a mass-migration of desperate families who can't feed their children. Many are showing up too late at makeshift camps for help, and the conditions are expected to get worse over the winter.

In early October, United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said he had "no doubt that we are seeing famine on our watch in Somalia."

A formal famine declaration comes when a region or nation meets certain prescribed criteria on mortality rates, insecurity and other metrics. It doesn't trigger any legal response, but it will often galvanize the international community to help more urgently.

Doctors on the ground tell CBS News they're expecting a formal declaration of famine in some Somali regions next month, but they say for millions of starving people, that will be too late.

The U.N. has ominously forecast that more than 40% of the country's 16 million people will face acute hunger between now and December.

Addressing U.N. representatives at the global body's European headquarters in Geneva on Tuesday, UNICEF spokesperson James Elder warned that Somalia was "on the brink of a tragedy at a scale not seen in decades."

Climate change, drought, and death

The security situation in Somalia, where the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab terror group holds significant ground, blocking humanitarian work, is contributing to the building catastrophe, but other human actions are also to blame. A 2020 survey ranked Somalia as the second-most vulnerable nation to the impacts of climate change in the world, behind only Niger.

Pervasive drought after a fifth consecutive failed rainy season has prompted a massive exodus from southern Somali regions. Families watched earlier this year as their crops and livestock died and their children slid into even more dire hunger. Many waited too long, hoping the rain was just about to arrive, but climate change has upended what were once much more predictable weather patterns.

Medical workers at camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) say families are arriving without any food or water, often with the most vulnerable — the elderly and children under five — already past the point of medical intervention. Regional hospitals' stabilization wards are filling up with tiny children clinging to life. Many have spent their entire lives in hunger.

"Today in Somalia, every single minute of every single day, a child is admitted to a health facility for treatment of severe acute malnutrition," UNICEF's Elder told delegations in Geneva on Tuesday. "The latest admission rates from August show 44,000 children admitted with severe acute malnutrition. That is a child per minute."

The last time a famine was declared in Somalia, in 2011, more than 250,000 people died for lack of nutrition, half of them under the age of five. The world vowed never to let it happen again. Later that year, United Nations member states and non-governmental organizations backed a charter to end extreme hunger, a campaign laying out five steps to avoid famines.

But if the U.N. agencies' own predictions are correct, that more than 300,000 people will be living under famine conditions by December in Somalia, this time could be far worse.

"The affected population is twice the size of 2011," Elder said Tuesday. "Things are bad and every sign indicates that they are going to get worse." 

Pain that "haunts"

Victor Chinyama of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) told CBS News he recently saw a mother at an IDP camp just outside the city of Baidoa in southern central Somalia with five children. She told him her 10-year-old son died of hunger two weeks earlier, and she showed him his grave.

"As I was talking to the mom, I noticed the 10-year-old brother crying," he said. "He clearly missed his brother. That haunts me. We often talk to parents, but seeing a sibling in such trauma, I will never forget that."

"We are so focused on lifesaving and raising funds just to keep people alive, you can lose sight of the fact there are so many kids in the IDP camps, not at school. They wake up and do nothing. They have nothing, no future prospects, and they are having to deal with immense loss," Chinyama said. "We have no capacity, because we are in life-saving mode and it is our priority to save lives, but I find that so hard — not to be able to offer them any support."

"It will be too late"

Chinyama said the U.N. aid agency's urgent efforts were focused on finding and treating children suffering from severe malnutrition, as well as providing vaccinations and treatment for cholera and measles.

"We are worried about water, too," said Chinyama, noting that in some of the drought-ravaged areas where the agency is working, it has to dig deeper and deeper as the water table has sunk ever lower. In many cases, he said they simply can't drill deep enough to find ground water, so they have to truck in clean water — a costly alternative.

A Somali woman and children carry water at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, September 20, 2022. / Credit: Jerome Delay/AP
A Somali woman and children carry water at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, September 20, 2022. / Credit: Jerome Delay/AP

Localized outbreaks of measles and cholera since January have prompted UNICEF to launch a new measles vaccination campaign. Without access to clean water, both diseases could quickly tear through the already vulnerable populations in the IDP camps.

As Elder noted in Geneva, twice as many children are already being admitted to regional hospitals than has typically been seen since the last famine.

"We simply cannot wait for famine to be declared, or it will be too late," Chinyama told CBS News.

The international community has recently rallied and started donating money to help Somalia, but the U.N. says there's still a massive $409 million shortfall in the $1.5 billion needed to head off this brewing disaster.

Aid organizations tell CBS News there's a push now to collect the specific data in Somalia on mortality rates and other metrics that will be needed for a formal famine declaration. But with so many people in the country on the move, and those who succumb to the catastrophe often being buried quickly, without formal documentation, it's proving difficult.

"We expect that the data being gathered will show us some areas are already in famine," said Chinyama.

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