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Tommy Tiernan and Caoimhe de Barra with Trócaire staff in Somalia. Credit: Trócaire

Irish Emergency Alliance

Trócaire CEO Caoimhe de Barra reflects on the hunger crisis in Somalia after a recent visit accompanied by Tommy Tiernan

Last week on a visit to Somalia with Tommy Tiernan, I met several mothers who are amongst hundreds of thousands facing hunger and hardship in the East African country.

In Dollow Health Referral Centre – one of several health facilities run by Trócaire – I sat down and  spoke for a few moments with one mother who had just arrived with a critically ill baby. The infant girl was given the very best of care by our health team. But she died within two days.  I will never forget that mother, and the pain that she is living through. 

In a nearby internally displaced persons camp Xamdi, a community health worker supported by Trócaire, introduced me to mother of five, Nurto Abshiro. She left her home two months ago because the drought had meant no crops for over two years and had killed almost all of their livestock.  Her husband stayed behind to tend to their few remaining animals. 

Every day, Nurto leaves her youngest children in the care of her 10-year-old daughter Ahada, and goes to try to find daily labour so she can buy food. She said that she returns with nothing four out of seven days, and the family doesn’t eat. She has been displaced for two months and two of her children have already been treated for malnutrition. However, when discharged from the treatment programme they go back home to no food, and quickly become sick again.  

This story is typical of what so many are facing in Somalia.

While I was in the country the UN Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, was in the capital Mogadishu where he repeated warnings we have heard from multiple agencies and experts over recent months of an unfolding humanitarian disaster. He said: “Famine is at the door, and today we are receiving a final warning.” 

But from what I witnessed last week famine has already crossed the threshold in Somalia and is devastating communities in many parts of the country. 

The Horn and East of Africa has been badly affected by the worst drought in over 40 years. Four successive rainy seasons have failed, and it look like the fifth will also fail. Over 20 million people are experiencing crisis levels of hunger. 

Somalia is the worst affected country in this region. The statistics are frightening. But they are real. 

Over seven million people, more than 40% of the population, are struggling to find food. The drought has led to the forced displacement of 800,000 people. An estimated 1.5 million children under the age of five will experience acute malnutrition by October. That is the equivalent of every child and young person under the age of 25 in Ireland 

Famine is only declared when a very high threshold of malnutrition and deaths from hunger has been reached and Martin Griffiths predicted that famine will occur in parts of Somalia between October and December. 

Trócaire has been working in Gedo District in South-Central Somalia since 1992, delivering essential health services and humanitarian assistance to more than a quarter of a million people a year. We are the only international NGO to have remained in Gedo through 30 years of conflict and insecurity. 

One of our longest serving staff in Gedo is Bahabo Ali a theatre nurse in Luug District hospital for 28 years. She has seen hundreds of newborn and very ill babies pass through her hands. She has also tended to hundreds of very ill mothers. 

Bahabo is one of a number of strong, inspiring female Trócaire staff I was fortunate enough to meet during my visit. They are making such a difference, helping to save the lives of the critically ill babies and mothers every day. In fact, over 1,100 severely malnourished babies have already been saved this year.  

Photo credit for image attached: Bishara Hassanow and her children live in an IDP camp in Luuq, Somalia. Credit: Trócaire Photo credit for image attached: Bishara Hassanow and her children live in an IDP camp in Luuq, Somalia. Credit: Trócaire

In Gedo we have an integrated programme of work on health, nutrition and protection, based around our 36 health facilities throughout the region. Recently, we have been expanding our education work, focusing in particular on internally displaced children. And we are also expanding our resilience and women’s empowerment work in response to the cyclical nature of drought and the need for sustainable solutions. 

In the past year, 265,000 people displaced by drought have moved to towns in Gedo including Dollow and Luuq out of a desperate need to find food for their families. It is common that mothers, like Nurto, travel with their children, leaving men behind to protect any remaining livestock or assets.  

Dr Abdi Tari, our Deputy Country Director, told me that supply of therapeutic food for severely malnourished children is rapidly running out. In Dollow, we have only five weeks supply of this food left, but the numbers of children who need to be admitted to hospital is increasing.  

Abdiwahit Maja, Head of Humanitarian Programmes, told me that the numbers of children being admitted to our stabilisation centres (for treatment of severe malnutrition) has tripled in the last year. 

Early interventions that involve provision of food to children before they become acutely malnourished, and to their families, and approaches that build long term resilience, are needed on a massive scale. 

Trócaire is implementing an integrated programme that combines early identification of vulnerable people with strategies for building their eventual resilience. For example, in the camps for displaced people, community health workers are constantly at work, meeting new arrivals, identifying their health and nutrition needs, providing immediate treatment where possible and guiding them to the health facilities or where needed to the protection services that are available to survivors of Gender Based Violence. 

Trócaire is providing monthly food rations to families who have a child being treated for malnutrition. However, there is simply not enough money to provide the food that is currently needed.  

Another mother I met is Hassanow who has been living in Boyle internally displaced persons camp for two months. She told me that her twins, who are two years old, are both being treated for severe malnutrition. One is recovering, while the other is very weak. She has received one month’s food ration for the family, but at the end of this month she will have no food for them. She said she would bring her twins, whom she is breastfeeding, with her to town to seek work. Imagine trying to find work – physical labour – while carrying two small infants. It is almost impossible, but she has no choice. 

The inevitable declaration of famine in coming months will mean that there has been an abject political failure to learn the lessons of the past and to prevent loss of lives. Failure to act fast enough is unconscionable. 

So, what can be done?  

Trócaire is working hard to build public awareness and to pressure the Irish government and other governments to increase overseas development assistance, both for this crisis and for long-term investment in building resilience.  

We will therefore continue to press the Irish government to honour its commitment to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas development assistance by 2030. This is a mere 7c in every €100 of income earned.  

Trócaire is part of the Irish Emergency Alliance which has launched an urgent appeal to raise funds for the millions in need in the Horn of Africa.  

Tommy Tiernan visited Somalia so he could see at first hand the unfolding catastrophe in order to support Trócaire in raising awareness about the crisis. Tommy’s endorsement of the Irish Emergency Alliance appeal will bring this issue to the attention of many thousands of people whose sense of common humanity will enable us to respond immediately to the needs of more people.  

You can be part of this movement: please donate at irishemergencyalliance.org 

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