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Famine by October? Somalia & East Africa Face Humanitarian Crisis Amid Climate Change, Ukraine War

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We look at the devastating effects of climate change and global inequity in East Africa, and how many countries face drought and a looming famine, with guests in Mogadishu, Somalia, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “The current unprecedented drought, that is a result of four consecutive failed rainy seasons, with the fifth and the sixth projected to also be below average, is causing a huge food insecurity,” says Adam Abdelmoula, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia. “I think the agenda for Africa now is food sovereignty,” adds Million Belay, coordinator at the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United Nations is warning of a looming famine in Somalia, where a searing drought fueled by the climate crisis has withered crops, killed livestock, left nearly 8 million people — half Somalia’s population — in need of humanitarian assistance. The U.N.’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, spoke in the capital Mogadishu after touring camps for internally displaced people and visiting hospitals treating malnourished children. Griffiths said afterwards hundreds of thousands of people are at imminent risk of death.

MARTIN GRIFFITHS: I’ve been shocked to my core these past few days by the level of pain and suffering we see so many Somalis enduring. Famine is at the door, and today we are receiving a final warning. … The unprecedented failure of four consecutive rainy seasons, decades of conflict, mass displacement, severe economic issues are pushing many people to that, the brink of famine.

AMY GOODMAN: According to the United Nations, 730 Somali children died this year at food and nutrition centers between January and July alone. The centers were set up to help children with severe acute malnutrition. Audrey Crawford of the Danish Refugee Council is warning the crisis may soon get even worse.

AUDREY CRAWFORD: Famine is on our doorsteps, and we’re going to be witnessing the death of children on an unimaginable scale in the last months of 2022 if we don’t act fast. Thirty thousand people have been arriving and moving between IDP camps each week over the past weeks, which is an increase of 135% in recent months. Over a million people have displaced internally this year so far. Most of them have walked for up to 10 days in search of food and water, arriving with literally nothing, in a deteriorated state, with malnourished children or children who have died. Many of the mothers I have talked to had buried children in the previous days, either from contracting diarrhea or measles in the overly congested camps or along the way from malnutrition.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the looming famine in Somalia and what’s happening right now, we’re joined by two guests. From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Million Belay, general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, also member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems. And in Mogadishu, Somalia, Adam Abdelmoula is with us, deputy special representative of the United Nations secretary-general and U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.

Dr. Abdelmoula, we’ll begin with you, on the ground in Mogadishu. Can you describe more what is happening? We keep using words like “looming,” but in fact the crisis is there now, and you have this number of children, not to mention adults, who are already dying.

ADAM ABDELMOULA: Well, first, thank you for having me.

As you rightly said, the current unprecedented drought, that is a result of four consecutive failed rainy seasons, with the fifth and the sixth projected to also be below average, is causing a huge food insecurity. As we speak, 7.1 million Somalis are acutely food insecure. Among them, 1.5 million children below the age of 5 are acutely malnourished. Within this category, there are 365,000 who are severely malnourished and may not make it by the end of October this year. And the figures we cited of the deaths are actually those of the children who managed to make it to the feeding centers and the hospitals. In the countryside, in hard-to-reach and inaccessible areas, the numbers are much, much greater, and the risks of death among children are much higher. Eighty percent of the internally displaced are women and children.

So, we are looking at a perfect storm. As the emergency relief coordinator said during his press statement here, the famine review committee assessed that famine would hit Somalia sometime between mid-October and December, unless we miraculously manage to upscale our humanitarian response. And that is, by all accounts, a very big “if,” given the current level of resources that we have at hand.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Abdelmoula, you’ve spent time visiting these hospitals. Could you describe what you saw there, as well as these feeding centers? What kind of resources exist to take care of children who are already suffering from severe malnutrition?

ADAM ABDELMOULA: You know, the case of conflict and the absence of a central government have rendered the health facilities in Somalia very, very fragile, and many of these hospitals and health centers are suffering from shortages of medicines, supplies, nutrition supplies in particular, and also adequately trained personnel. The scenes that we see in these hospitals, especially in the feeding centers in these hospitals, are truly gut-wrenching. I tweeted about this, and I posted some pictures, and if you look at my Twitter account, you will find some of those pictures. And I still say these are the lucky ones who made it to the health centers. Imagine those in the hinterland, in hard-to-reach areas or areas that are under the control of armed groups. The situation is much, much worse in those areas.

With regard to the supplies, and nutrition supplies in particular, we have been suffering from shortages of funding, that resulted in supply chain disruptions up until June this year. The humanitarian response plan, with its drought component for 2022, were only 18% funded. Thanks to the United States and the infusion of resources that it provided, in August, our funding levels jumped to over 60%, 67% to be precise, for the humanitarian response plan for 2022. But the plan itself has been outpaced by the growing needs, because it was conceived sometime at the end of last year, and since then, the numbers of those in need have been steadily growing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Million Belay, you are in Addis Ababa. Could you describe what the situation is there in Ethiopia, and also elaborate on what the causes of this crisis are across East Africa?

MILLION BELAY: I think there is always a food shortage in our part of the world. And also, I think, in Kenya, also I think close to 3.5 people are suffering. And in total — my brother can correct me — it’s about 20 million. I think the drought is very, very serious.

I think the big question for me is: Why is this happening? What has kind of sucked our resilience, you know, as Africans, both at the country level and at the country inter level, so that every time this happens, we extend our begging bowls to the others, you know? I think that’s a very important question. Somalia, for example, as my brother said, before the war, they were producing plenty, and now they’re producing half of what they were producing before, you know?

So, I think the first culprit would be the climate, the climate change. I think the recent IPCC prediction is, probably, in the future, over 50% of the maize-producing area, close to 30% of bean-producing area would be normal, you know? So, climate change — I think the frequency of these droughts, the severity of these droughts is increasing, and climate change is the cause.

And what is the response of the whole, the global response? I think the global citizens’ response is growing, but the governments’ is astoundingly — is short. For example, the British — I mean, the U.K. has now a new prime minister. And what’s her plan? Who has she assigned as her energy minister? It’s not somebody who’s addressing this climate situation.

So, there is a huge injustice baked into the system. And the eastern African countries and all over Africa, we are suffering because of the problem that they are causing. And historically also, African agriculture was on decline because of historical factors. I think, before the European maritime influence, before colonialism, it is well documented that Africa has a very complex socioeconomic and political system in terms of trade and agriculture. And that was disrupted hugely during European maritime and the slave trade, and also later by colonialism.

And even post-independence, that kind of influence has continued. Even now new actors are coming in, instead of — in addition to governments. New philanthrocapitalists are coming with their own methods of — with their own solution for Africa. We can mention the Gates Foundation, for example, as one of the foundations, which has an institution called the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, basically promoting agrochemicals, you know, high-yielding variety of seeds, market-oriented agriculture, this kind of — which sucks again the resilience of our agriculture for the future. It doesn’t build sustainability, doesn’t build resilience. So, you know, that all the problems that we face, with army war, with the [inaudible] war, with the drought, these are all exacerbated by the bad motives of development that we are following as an Africa, and that’s also the influence from outside, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Million Belay, how exacerbated are these issues by the war in Ukraine? There’s two things there. One is, every week we’re reading about the millions and billions of dollars that are going into the war in Ukraine —

MILLION BELAY: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — that could be used elsewhere. But, number two, Ukraine and Russia among the largest — Russia, the largest exporter of grain, also Russia, of fertilizer. How does this affect Africa?

MILLION BELAY: Hugely. The cost of fuel has increased. This is very, very significant in Africa, because the price of commodities, food commodities, will rise in response to the price of fuel. Fertilizer, you know, we have led into a path dependence. We are dependent on external inputs for our agriculture. And that external input, especially fertilizers and artificial fertilizers, come also in huge — to a huge extent from Russia mainly. And the drier parts of Africa, the northern Africa, and also other parts of Africa, who depend on wheat that is produced from Ukraine and Russia, and oil. The price of oil is incredible now in Africa.

And this brings a very, very critical question, a very critical agenda. I think the agenda for Africa now is food sovereignty. We have to be sovereign. We can’t be depending on other countries who are now on the bad model of development, and on the whims and plans of others. I think that’s very clear now.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dr. Abdelmoula, finally, if you could also respond to this? Talk about the impact of the war, of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the fact that not just the provision of — Russia and Ukraine providing food for East Africa and large parts of the world, grain, fuel, fertilizer, but also the World Food Programme depended for — 75% of its food came from Russia and Ukraine.

ADAM ABDELMOULA: Yeah. Well, before that, if you’ll allow me just to comment on what my brother just said. The real cause of the crisis that we see in Somalia right now is actually a development deficit. As Somalis are dying in droves because of the drought, the country still has two rivers that still flow, day in and day out, right into the Indian Ocean, unharvested and unutilized. You go to the countryside, you see livestock dying of thirst and lack of water. So, this is, in essence, is a lack of climate adaptation, lack — a high level of fragility. And the answer is not to keep dumping relief year in and year out, but rather to address the root causes and to do adequate climate adaptation. Climate change is here to stay. It is unprecedented to see four failed rainy seasons, with a projected fifth one looming. That is the answer. But for now we are much more focused on lifesaving activities, and we are trying to save as many as we can.

With regard to the impact of the Ukraine — the war in Ukraine on Somalia, there are several things to be said here, not only the fact that some of the wheat imports that used to come to Somalia used to come from Russia and Ukraine, the ratio being 50% from Ukraine, 35% from Russia, and all of that has come to complete halt, but also the war has caused disruption of supply chains. And that led to an increase in the price of essential commodities here by as high as 140 to 160%. Also, there are a fuel shortages. This is mostly an informal economy. And that continues to suffer from the global disruptions, as well as the effects of COVID-19. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Doctor, we just have 30 seconds, so if you could say what’s most important to happen right now?

ADAM ABDELMOULA: Yeah, the most important thing is that we have a very short window of opportunity to stave off the specter of famine in Somalia. And that window is closing very fast. We need resources. We need them now, in order to scale up and save as many lives as we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Adam Abdelmoula, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, speaking to us from Mogadishu, Somalia, and Million Belay, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, speaking to us from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Next up, “attack philanthropy.” We learn more about details on how a secretive right-wing billionaire, Barre Seid, has used his fortune to attack climate science, fight Medicaid expansion and more. Stay with us.

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