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Somalia battles hunger as it braces for famine during a prolonged drought

Fahir Mayow holds her nephew, eight-month-old Ahmed Noor, at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu on Monday. Ahmed arrived at the hospital one week ago, weighing 3.5 kilograms, just under 8 pounds.
Luke Dray for NPR
Fahir Mayow holds her nephew, eight-month-old Ahmed Noor, at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu on Monday. Ahmed arrived at the hospital one week ago, weighing 3.5 kilograms, just under 8 pounds.

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Somalia typically gets two rainy seasons per year. The first, called the Gu rains, usually start in late March or April and last until June. The second round of rains, known as the Deyr, generally produce less precipitation and arrive in October or November.

But Somalia's last four rainy seasons have failed. And there's a fear that the current Deyr rains, which end most years by early January, may fail too.

The United Nations warns that next year, nearly half of Somalia's population could be in what it labels a "critical food crisis," with full-on famine conditions in some of the hardest-hit parts of the country. The effects of a two-year drought — thought to be the worst in 40 years — are being felt across this East African nation, home to some 17 million people.

"Livestock are dying. Cereal harvests are failing," says Petroc Wilton, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme in Somalia. "There is a massive hunger crisis gripping the country right now."

Millions of Somalis are going hungry, he says.

Children are suffering from severe malnutrition and wasting

In Mogadishu, the capital, the pediatric wards at the government-run Banadir Hospital are filled with malnourished children. Some are bloated from a severe form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor.

"At the moment, we are looking at maybe 1.8 million children suffering from acute malnutrition" in the coming months, warns Victor Chinyama, UNICEF's spokesperson in Somalia. "About half a million of these are in danger of dying because they have a more severe form of malnutrition called wasting."

A nurse adjusts Deeqle Ibrahim's nasal feeding tube as he lies on a hospital bed, while his mother, Meral Ibrahim, looks on at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu on Monday. Deeqle is suffering from severe malnutrition, and his mother had to travel more than 60 miles from their home village to the hospital in Mogadishu. Deeqle is two years old, but he weighs less than 12 pounds.
/ Luke Dray for NPR
/
Luke Dray for NPR
A nurse adjusts Deeqle Ibrahim's nasal feeding tube as he lies on a hospital bed, while his mother, Meral Ibrahim, looks on at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu on Monday. Deeqle is suffering from severe malnutrition, and his mother had to travel more than 60 miles from their home village to the hospital in Mogadishu. Deeqle is two years old, but he weighs less than 12 pounds.

Two-year-old Deeqle Ibrahim is one of them. He's so thin that his eyes are sunk in their sockets. He's become so weak that the hospital staff must feed him through a tube.

"From the long starvation, he's lost all his muscles, his fats. He cannot swallow properly," says Dr. Mohamed Yasin Hirey, standing next to the emaciated boy's bedside in the pediatric malnutrition intensive care unit. "This child is two years old and his weight is only 5.4 [kilograms]" — just under 12 pounds. "This is the weight of a normal two-month-old."

The fight for survival

The doctor says Deeqle should weigh two to three times this much. Deegle's mother, Meral Ibrahim, sits beside him on the bed. She fans her son with her shawl. Ibrahim says he became ill nearly a month ago, with severe diarrhea, fever and vomiting. He grew thinner and thinner. Finally, she says, she made the 60-mile journey with him from their village to Mogadishu, to seek help.

Hirey says his unit is seeing more and more cases of wasting like Deeqle's.

"For the last six months, the number of cases dramatically increased," he says.

As long as the children don't have other complications like cholera, measles or tuberculosis, he says they respond well to treatment, which includes nasal feeding tubes, IV drips, antibiotics and special high-nutrient formula milk.

Hirey says Banadir Hospital admits roughly 20 malnourished children a day. The malnutrition ICU has six beds, all full on Dec. 12, the day NPR visited. Some patients who are in better condition than Deeqle stay in an adjacent ward. Other malnourished children are treated in an outpatient clinic. Their caregivers are supplied with a high-calorie, peanut-based supplement called Plumpy'Nut, which can help the children regain weight quickly.

Climate change, militancy, COVID and Ukraine's war all compound this crisis

Adding to the crisis, the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab is blocking international relief efforts in areas of Somalia it controls.

The crop failures have come as battles between the government and al-Shabaab have forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis to seek food aid and basic shelter in camps set up for internally displaced people. UNICEF estimates that the current drought has displaced more than 1.1 million people.

And there have been plenty of other challenges as well: a locust infestation that destroyed crops in 2020, the COVID pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which has driven up food prices.

Climate change is also exacting a toll. Somalia has suffered droughts throughout its history, Chinyama with UNICEF says, but now they are more frequent.

"So, for example, now in 2022, we have a drought. The last one was in 2017," he says. "And if you recall in 2011, there was a famine in which about 260,000 people lost their lives."

In the short term, Chinyama says agencies such as his are focused on Somalia's current food crisis. But they also are looking for ways for the country to adapt to a new reality in which rainfall becomes less predictable than ever.

For now, with shorter intervals between droughts, Somalis have less time to rebuild their decimated livestock herds, less time to reestablish crops — and less time to recover before next disaster strikes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.