War and climate change are overwhelming Somalia | World News - Hindustan Times
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War and climate change are overwhelming Somalia

The Economist
May 22, 2024 08:00 AM IST

It has already been battered by three decades of conflict

AS THE SUN beats down on the dusty yellow soil and a cluster of tin shacks near the city of Galkayo, in central Somalia, mothers point to their children, looking on shyly. Then almost all express variations of the same words: “I don’t know what I will feed them,” or “I have not cooked today because I have no food”.

Somali boys play with a replica of a gun during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations, marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Mogadishu, Somalia April 10, 2024. REUTERS/Feisal Omar(REUTERS) PREMIUM
Somali boys play with a replica of a gun during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations, marking the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Mogadishu, Somalia April 10, 2024. REUTERS/Feisal Omar(REUTERS)

Theirs is a despair felt across a country where first it never rained, and then it poured. Between 2020 and late 2022 the rains, which usually come twice a year, failed five times in a row, causing Somalia’s worst drought in 40 years and pushing the country to the brink of a famine. The disaster was averted only by a $2.4bn emergency response led by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and international charities including Save the Children. Then last year came the country’s worst flooding in a century, which swept away fields, drove up food prices, and forced more than a million people to leave their homes.

“If anyone doesn’t believe in climate change, this is clear testimony that it is happening,” says El-Khidir Daloum, the WFP’s country director for Somalia. “The Somali people didn’t contribute to the climate crisis, but they are suffering from it.”

The tiny settlement of Samawade is a microcosm of Somalia, a fragile state that has been engulfed in war since 1991 and that now finds itself at risk of being overwhelmed by more frequent extreme weather. Almost all of the 167 families living here have fled conflict, drought or floods, some of them more than once. Some, strictly speaking, are refugees from nearby countries, including Ethiopia and Yemen.

The precarious lives they now lead highlight not only how hard it is to rebuild failed states, but also how even the best-intentioned international efforts to do so can still leave people stuck in a dismal limbo, unable to return home but also unable to move on. And as the number of displaced and desperate Somalis has grown, so their mounting humanitarian needs are running up against rising donor fatigue.

About 4m Somalis, or roughly a fifth of the population, are facing “crisis” or “emergency” food insecurity, in the jargon used by the UN’s experts to describe the finer gradations of human suffering. Plainly put, these are the two topmost rungs of a ladder of unimaginable misery, just below famine, the top rung. Among those climbing this ladder of death are 1.7m children under the age of five who face acute malnutrition. “My biggest worry is what will my children eat,” says Muslimo, a mother of nine. “We need help.”

Yet her plea is being ignored. Of the $1.6bn required for the humanitarian response in Somalia this year, less than $200m has been funded. That, says Mohamed Abdiladif, the acting country director for Save the Children in Somalia, is forcing aid agencies and charities to make impossible choices about whom to help. “You see with your own eyes children who are severely malnourished and there is nothing very much you can do for them,” he says. “When you are incapable of helping, it really makes you question a lot.”

Extreme weather and conflict are the most direct causes of the current crisis. But they would not be nearly as deadly if Somalia’s people had not been impoverished by decades of fighting and rapacious rule by warlords, jihadists and corrupt officials. Almost all statistics in the country, including population estimates, should be taken as guesswork. The last census was conducted in 1986, but was never released. Even so, it is certain that Somalia is one of the poorest countries on earth. Its GDP per person is probably less than $800.

Two things keep the economy afloat. The first is Somalia’s diaspora, which sends home about $2bn a year, a sizeable sum in a country with a GDP of only around $10bn. The second is foreign aid, which added up to about $3.6bn last year. That makes aid Somalia’s biggest industry after agriculture. It is also a tempting source of patronage and a target for graft in a country ranked the most corrupt out of 180 in an annual index compiled by Transparency International, a watchdog.

Somalia’s reliance on humanitarian aid may also help explain why roughly one in five of its people is stuck in godforsaken camps like Samawade. Across Somalia, almost 4m people are classified as “internally displaced”, up from about 1m a decade ago. Many would much rather return to their old homes and livelihoods or get jobs and new homes in the cities than stay where they are. “I love farming,” says Halima, a grandmother. “You sleep when you like and you work when you like.” Yet going home is not always an option: her farm was washed away by floods.

Daka, who has lived for five years in Kulmiye Garsoor, another camp, hankers after her old life of tending herds that roamed in search of grazing. “I would go back because I would be someone with something,” she says, recounting how she once owned 40 goats and two donkeys. The grass has returned with the rains, but Daka has no capital to replace her livestock, which perished in a drought.

Instead, it is displaced people who are, in effect, being herded having been pushed into camps, often on private land, where they have no security of tenure and rely on handouts. Right now they need urgent help to feed their children and themselves. But if Somalia is to break its cycle of crises, its rulers will have to start seeing them as citizens, not displaced people, and invest in transforming supposedly temporary camps into permanent neighbourhoods, complete with schools, clinics, decent houses—and jobs.

Sign up to the Middle East Dispatch, a weekly newsletter that keeps you in the loop on a fascinating, complex and consequential part of the world. And for more coverage of climate change, sign up for the Climate Issue, our fortnightly subscriber-only newsletter, or visit our climate-change hub.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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