A Somali boy’s mission to find food as climate change takes its toll

Bashir lives where three crises converge – global warming, soaring food prices and war. Like millions of other people in Somalia, he finds himself in the crosshairs of what some aid workers call “the three Cs”: climate change, costs and conflict.

The worst drought in four decades in war-torn Somalia forced his family to leave their farm three months ago and move about 100 kilometers (62.5 miles) north of the town of Dollow, the border with Ethiopia .

Today, he leads a pack of young children who gather when Kabasa Primary School serves food to its students. through the school fence, children watch the pupils inside as they wolf down hot porridge or plates of beans and maize served under a program supported by the UN, one of the few regular sources of food in the city.

Many of them are part of the latest influx of Dollow people, too late to enroll in school. One after another, they sneak through the broken gate and dart out into the dusty schoolyard to have a meal when the teachers aren’t looking.

“When I don’t have food, I get so hungry: I lie down and can’t sleep,” Bashir says quietly. He hadn’t eaten dinner the night before or breakfast that morning. His eight siblings at home were all hungry, he said.

The drought, which began last year, is expected to worsen, exacerbated by climate change, many scientists and aid organizations say. A third of the cattle have already died of thirst or starvation. Crops and fruit trees withered.

Somalia, torn apart by a long-running Islamist insurgency, needs to import more food but people cannot afford to buy it. Foreign aid is declining and food prices are soaring because of the war in Ukraine, the world’s fourth largest grain exporter.

At least 448 children have died since January while being treated for acute malnutrition, according to the United Nations. These figures probably represent only a fraction of the actual number of deaths, as many of them will not have been able to reach help.

The United Nations warned this month that more than a third of Somalia’s 16 million need food aid to survive. Some areas may experience famine this month. In some places, the aid will be drawn down in June.

No time to recover

Bashir’s family had never left their home in south-central Somalia before, even when the 2011 famine claimed more than a quarter of a million lives, most of them children. Aid workers say deaths could approach those levels again in this drought.

Bashir’s family did not move then. Some animals survived, so they stayed on their farm near the village of Ceel Bon.

Not this time. The drought took away their 12 cows and 21 goats – a small fortune in a country where the wealth is in animals. The family once enjoyed three meals a day: the creamy milk from the family cows now reduced to spare bones; and field beans and sorghum now withered and cracked.

“I’ve never seen a drought like this,” said Bashir’s 30-year-old mother. She and her nine children now sleep on two Dollow mattresses.

On good days, Bashir’s father can earn $2 selling charcoal in a nearby town, but since May 2 he has only been able to send $10 due to lack of work. The family has received no food aid, she said.

Such desperation is set to become more common in Somalia, and beyond, as rising temperatures fuel more natural disasters, many scientists say. Over the past 50 years, extreme weather events have increased fivefold worldwide, according to the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

The Horn of Africa, including Somalia, is its driest level on record. This year’s March-April rains – the first of two annual rainy seasons – were the weakest in 70 years, and the second October-December rains are also expected to be exceptionally dry, according to a warning issued last month by a group of 14 meteorological and humanitarian associations, including WMO.

“We’ve never seen a four-season drought before, and now we’re probably going to see a fifth” in October, said climatologist Chris Funk of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California Santa Barbara.

“This drought has been made much more likely due to climate change,” Funk said.

The El-Nino-La Nina weather cycle, halfway around the world in the Pacific, partly influences the hot, dry air over Somalia, as does the Indian Ocean Dipole weather pattern. When the Diple is positive, it is warmer in the western Indian Ocean and more rainy in East Africa. However, according to WMO forecasts, the Diple should become negative until the end of the year, resulting in a drought on the Horn.

But these factors are not enough to explain the sharp decline in spring rains over the past 20 years, Funk said.

Ocean warming may also play a role. Climatologist Abubakr Salih Babiker of the WMO Regional Office for Africa said the Indian Ocean is among the fastest warming bodies of water in the world.

With the oceans absorbing much of the rising atmospheric heat, scientists believe that the warm waters of the Indian Ocean could evaporate and rain more quickly over the ocean before reaching the Horn of Africa, leaving dry air sweeping the land.

Another factor: Air temperatures in Somalia have risen by an average of 1.7 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average – faster than the global average of 1.2 degrees, Babiker said. Warmer air accelerates evaporation from soil and plants.

The Horn of Africa has seen other climate-related disasters in recent years – devastating floods, a record number of cyclones and vast swarms of locusts – leaving the region reeling from one crisis to another, it said. -he says.

“There is no time for recovery,” Babiker said.

CLIMBING COSTS

The children’s ward at Dollow Hospital was filled with apathetic patients, as were the maternity and outpatient departments.

All the beds were full when Reuters visited in May, with age/height/weight ratios turning red at times. Weakened by severe malnutrition, some children suffered from serious infections, including measles.

At the school where Bashir hunts for food, Suleko Mohammed, 10, says she lost three siblings to measles in six weeks – two brothers, aged 2 and 3, and her older sister who helped her his homeworks.

They now rest under heaps of rubble and thorn branches in a cemetery next to the playground. As she spoke between classes, mourners were digging another small grave.

Down the road, market stalls displayed watermelons, mangoes, beans and sacks of flour and wheat – too expensive for many.

Food prices have soared by up to 160% in parts of Somalia, due to drought and global supply disruptions due to the conflict in Ukraine. Even in good time, Somalia imports more than half of its food.

The government has been alarmed at the slow international aid response, and its special envoy for drought, Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame, has said countries must “pay attention to this drought before it turns into a famine”. .

“All human lives are equal,” he told Reuters. “The international community, especially Western nations, pay more attention to Ukraine than to other crises.”

To date, Somalia has received only 18% of the $1.46 billion it needs in humanitarian aid this year, according to UN figures – well below last year’s level of response. Ukraine, on the other hand, received 71% of the $2.25 billion requested for six months. Senior UN officials have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the lack of aid in the Horn of Africa to deal with worsening drought.

RELATIVE SECURITY

Dollow is better served by aid agencies than most Somali towns and is among the safest places to face the al-Qada-linked insurgency, one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

More than 520 aid workers have been kidnapped, injured or killed in the past 15 years – the majority of them Somalis. Dollow, Ethiopian soldiers patrol the streets and maintain order.

Kabasa Primary School was created to cope with the influx of families devastated by the 2011 famine. mortality rate.

About a fifth of students usually leave school during difficult times and never return, said Rania Degesh, deputy director for Eastern and Southern Africa for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“When you uproot children, you expose them to incredible risks: exploitation, gender-based violence, early marriages, recruitment, neglect,” Degesh said.

The meal program encourages them to stay in school. Schools in Somalia receive 41 US cents per child for two meals a day, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.

But dwindling funds have already forced cuts in the program which supports 110,000 Somali children. The schools have just started a two-month break; there is no funding for the resumption of classes in august.

Teachers said Bashir and his gang were among at least 50 unregistered children who showed up each day hoping to receive meals. Sometimes the teachers pushed them away. Sometimes they offered leftovers. Sometimes they closed their eyes.

“If they eat the food, then there is not enough for the students,” Kasaba headmaster Abdikarim Dahir Ga’al said as he watched Bashir’s gang slip into the schoolyard. .

Ga’al pretended not to notice. It was the last day of term.

“I am a teacher,” he said. “But I’m also a parent.”

Outside, Bashir rushed among the last students to receive their meal, emerging triumphantly from the mix with a metallic plate of mashed beans and maize.

His smile is wide and he keeps his head held high. Finally, he was going to eat.

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