On Saturday, Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire offered another stark fact to illuminate the magnitude of the country's drought. At least 110 people have died in the previous 48 hours in a single region of Somalia, he said in a statement. Most of the victims were women and children, killed by waterborne diseases. The families know the water isn't safe to drink, but they have no choice: There are no other sources.
“Outbreaks of diarrhea and some cases of measles are striking down people, mainly children already weakened by hunger,” Abdullahi Omar Mohamed, the chairman of the Ow-diinle village in Bay region, told local news media.
It is the first death-toll announcement the country has offered as it braces for the famine almost certainly to come. More than 5 million Somalis are in immediate need of food, the United Nations estimates. Half the country's population — 6.2 million people — are at risk of famine if conditions do not improve soon. “It's pretty staggering,” Plan Australia Program Director Dave Husy told ABC. “We're looking at 40 to 50 percent of the population facing acute food shortages, and a good proportion would be reaching a desperate state.”
Already, about 363,000 children are acutely malnourished; 270,000 more are at risk in 2017. The United Nations warned recently that there is only “a two-month window to avert a drought catastrophe.”
Other countries in the region are at risk, too. Last week, South Sudan declared a famine in areas of the country's south. A bloody civil war displaced thousands, disrupted crop planting and led to economic collapse. It is the first country in the world to declare a famine since 2011.
The world is in the grip of an astonishing and acute crisis: More than 20 million people in South Sudan, Somalia, northern Nigeria and Yemen face starvation in the next six months, according to the United Nations. Nearly 1.4 million children are at “imminent risk” of death. The scale of the hunger epidemic was described last month by U.S.-based researchers as “unprecedented in recent decades.”
In Somalia, the famine comes after three years of drought, particularly in the country's north. Crop production and livestock numbers have dropped precipitously, and thousands of people have fled to major cities in search of food and sanctuary. The lack of clean water means that outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases are a near certainty.
The ongoing violence has made even small improvements hard. Somalia was wracked by decades of civil war, and hundreds of thousands of people still live in camps for internally displaced people. Much of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu, is under regular attack by al-Qaeda-linked terror group al Shabaab. Additionally, aid agencies have only limited access to al-Shabab-held towns and rural areas.
Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo declared a state of disaster in the past week. He warned that widespread hunger “makes people vulnerable to exploitation, human rights abuses and to criminal and terrorist networks.” Hope for an easy remedy, though, is in short supply. The United Nations says it needs $6 billion in the next few weeks to prevent a calamity. So far, it has received just half a billion dollars.