As UN calls for coordinated global efforts to help Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, humanitarian aid is slow to reach some of those on brink of famine
Sitting silently on a Somali hospital bed with a drip attached to his severely malnourished little body, Saalax Muxumed, nine, is just one face of what the UN says could be the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945.
He and his mother are ethnic Somalis from Ethiopia who made the arduous journey across the border because they believed it was their only hope of finding help amid the devastating impact of a third consecutive year of drought in the Horn of Africa.
Guardian graphic | Source: IPC, FSNAU
“We came as refugees, just to survive,” said the widowed mother of five, as she looked around the 20-bed ward of the only stabilisation centre for severely malnourished children in Hargeisa, capital of the self-declared republic of Somaliland.
Across Somaliland, its neighbouring Somali state of Puntland and in southern Somalia, a tragedy is unfolding, in which 6.2 million Somalis – more than half the population – are in need of urgent food assistance.
Stephen O’Brien, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told the security council in New York on Friday that more than 20 million people in four countries – Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan and north-east Nigeria – were facing starvation and famine, numbers that would make this the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war. Without coordinated global efforts, he warned, “people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease”.
O’Brien said $4.4bn (£3.6bn) was needed for all four affected countries by July “to avert a catastrophe”.
Aid is in the pipeline, including funds from the UK and the US. However, on a week-long visit to Somaliland and to some of the worst hit areas, in regions around its second largest city of Burao, the Guardian saw no evidence of organised food distribution by aid agencies or central government.
Those appearing to go without included more than 1,000 people – and rising – who had pitched makeshift shelters on a rock-hard dust bowl of barren land outside the town of Caynabo. The local governor also said that he had been receiving distress calls from isolated communities, which he had been unable to reach, where people were lying on the ground too weak to move.
Dead goats and sheep in front of makeshift houses being patrolled by a Somali police officer near the town of Burao. Photograph: Kate Holt/Unicef
In his own softly spoken way, Somaliland’s foreign minster, Saad Ali Shire, was quietly scathing about the international response, explaining that while cash assistance would have been preferable to enable people to buy food directly themselves, immediate relief in the form of food, water and medication is now needed in the next two to three weeks.
“Otherwise we will be looking at a very dire situation,” he said. “I think there is a lack of understanding and sensitivity. There is no sense of crisis. It seems like, you know – ‘Show me people dying.’ When you write to them they say, ‘Well, the UN is doing this and that.’ But where is it?”
There have been a few thousand tonnes of food delivered by the Turkish government, a Saudi charity, Ethiopia and the World Food Programme, but Shire said that his government had seen none of the large amounts of financial support pledged by other states.
He added: “There are many international NGOs and UN organisations doing one thing or another, supported by Britain, the US and others, but as far as response to the drought is concerned, providing food and water and medicine to those people in camps displaced in the interior, I have not seen it.
“In the coming three or four weeks we are going to have a very difficult time. We are trying very hard ourselves. We may be able to mitigate the effect but the situation is dire and it needs international intervention. It’s really beyond our means.”