Africa's Hungry Horn
Harsh Grip of Famine Threatens Millions in Ethiopia and Somalia

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

EL BARDE, Somalia -- Not too long ago, Irad Hussein Ali considered himself a lucky man.

He drank milk several times a day. He feasted on steak several times a week. He spent his mornings and afternoons in the wide-open countryside, grazing his 50 cows and dozens of goats on fine sprays of grass.

"I had everything," the 72-year-old said. "I was very rich."

That was before a drought crept across this region of western Somalia last year and again this year. Since then, the sorghum fields have dried up, the green grass has vanished and every last one of Ali's cattle has died, leaving him dependent on corn-soya rations.

By the end of the year, U.N. officials predict, nearly half of this nation's population, or about 3.5 million people, will need food aid, a dramatic spike driven by rampant political insecurity, skyrocketing global food prices, the devaluation of the local currency and a failure of nature's mercy, rain.

Those factors are also in play just across the border in Ethiopia, and aid groups are warning that large swaths of the Horn of Africa are hovering at the threshold of famine.

The signs are coming from all directions, especially near Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, where fighting between the Ethiopian-backed transitional government and Islamist insurgents has been heaviest. Along one road leading out of the city, more than 300,000 people have been living for more than a year under tarps and trees and with little access to food, and the situation is reaching a crisis point, according to the aid group Doctors Without Borders.

In recent months, aid workers have seen a 400 percent rise in the number of young children slipping through the stages of malnutrition: first becoming listless and withdrawn, their arms and legs growing thinner, their skin peeling off as it dies, and finally their bodies swelling, a condition caused by severe protein deficiency.

"Since May, the numbers have gone through the roof," said Susan Sandars, a spokeswoman for the group.

The situation here in the town of El Barde is repeated across central and southern Somalia, where most of the country's nearly 1 million displaced people have fled empty-handed; thousands more are arriving from Mogadishu every day. Though extended families have provided one safety net for the displaced, the traditional coping mechanism of sharing is reaching its limit.

Across the border in southern and eastern Ethiopia, the situation appears to be even worse: Numbers of severely malnourished children in some areas have increased sixfold in two months, according to the International Medical Corps, which runs screening centers there. At least 3.4 million Ethiopians are in immediate need of emergency food assistance.

The group's country director, Seifu Woldeamanuel, said that without additional intervention, children were "at grave risk of starvation."

Aid groups in both countries are overwhelmed. The political insecurity in Somalia has rendered it the worst humanitarian disaster in Africa, judging by the scale of unmet need. And with roads menaced by militias, a thriving business of aid worker kidnappings, piracy on the seas and an often-uncooperative government, little international relief is in sight.

No Buyers

This speck of a town is itself a portent, having reached emergency status recently, according to the U.N. World Food Program. More than half of the 28,000 people who live here have qualified for food aid.

Herders such as Ali watched their livestock die for lack of grazing grass, and made their way into town with whatever scrawny beasts they had left. But a weakened cow is not worth much: one bag of sorghum instead of three, for instance, if a buyer can be found.

In the market, Hussein Abdirahman sat all day without selling a single skinny goat, a couple of dozen of which lay listless in the sand. His 40 others had died. Even if he managed to sell one, he said, the price would be less than half what it used to be.

"It's a big stress for now," he said. "If we don't sell the goats, we ask the shops for credit. If they don't have credit, it's the end of the day."

The skyrocketing prices of imported food plus the devaluation of the Somali shilling -- it has lost 125 percent against the U.S. dollar in the past four months-- have put basic goods out of reach for most people, who are buying less and less. Shopkeepers who once had money to provide credit are in such dire straits that they are eating their own food stocks.

Across the way from Abdirahman's goat sale, shopkeeper Mohamed Nour said he has done his best to help, extending $3,000 worth of interest-free credit to people in town, but he has come to the end of his generosity. "There are so many people coming now, and I can't give to all of them," he said. "I've given almost twice what I gave last year."

Children Wasting Away

From the air, El Barde appears vulnerable, just a cluster of huts in a wider expanse of advancing brown and fading green. Up close, its streets are full of twiggy bushes and the dried skeletons of cattle and goats.

As the situation has deteriorated, about one in every four children under age 5 has become dangerously underweight. At a screening center, aid workers said the numbers are steadily rising -- in April, about 25 children a day were meeting the grim definition of malnourished, weighing less than 80 percent of what they should. This month, it has been about 60 a day, among them Abdi Ali Osman, a smiling 5-year-old in a long line of children waiting to step on a scale.

"He is still not increasing his weight," said Hussein Mahat, a worker with the International Medical Corps, which runs the screening center, a straw shelter with a couple of scales and a few notebooks to record names and weights. The frequent problem, Mahat said, is that families share the supplementary food intended for the children.

When children keep losing weight, they are moved to a second straw shelter next door, one for children only 75 percent of their healthy weight. So far, about 45 children are enrolled there.

The World Food Program is struggling to keep up, doubling the amount of food it distributes in Somalia.

'The Worst I've Ever Seen'

Across a dust-blown square this week, formerly self-sufficient people including Ali stood in long lines for rations.

When he first arrived in El Barde, Ali depended on relatives, he said, but their supplies are now exhausted. On many days, he said, he's been making a meal out of tea.

"This is the worst I've ever seen," said Ali, who tries to make money by collecting and selling about the only resource left here -- dried-up twigs used for firewood.

As the rations were handed out, officials instructed women on what to do if bandits made a dash for the food.

Khadja Mohamed, 40, guarded her supplies, waiting for a neighbor's donkey cart to help her haul the food home. When the rains stopped coming, she said, her husband left her and their nine children to find work in Kenya. He never returned, she said matter-of-factly, looking out across the brownish yellow landscape.

"Normally, all this is green," she said.

The next rainy season is supposed to start in October, but the wells and watering holes that usually last until then are drying up. Only a couple of weeks ago, one natural trough stretched about 50 yards in diameter across the sand. It has since shrunk to a few puddles, and the well at its center is more than half empty.

The minor oasis was crowded not with cattle and goats but mostly camels, as locals often trade for the heartier animal during prolonged droughts. But the camels -- some of whom had come 40 miles to find water -- were boney, their ribcages showing.

"You see, they are weak," said Jama Abdullahi Samad, 62, a herder. "They don't have any water, and people don't have any food. We are just hoping for support from the U.N. We don't know what will come tomorrow."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company