Home The Washington Diplomat October 2011

Waves of Starving Somalis Inundate Neighboring Kenya

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Famine has returned to the Horn of Africa, after two decades of absence. Because of years of low rainfall, the fields that millions relied on to feed themselves, their families and their livestock have dried up, and civil conflict has made parts of the region inaccessible for governments and aid groups alike — a perfect storm for human tragedy.

Although drought and conflict are the two driving factors behind the crisis, Africa's most recent famine can also be traced to a complex web of local, regional and global dynamics. Climate change has made once-in-a-lifetime droughts a regularly occurring event, explosive population growth has strained limited resources, food prices around the world have been steadily climbing, and the worldwide economic downturn has sapped foreign aid budgets, while donor fatigue has already begun to set in.

There's also plenty of individual blame to go around: In Somalia, which has lacked any semblance of authority for 20 years, the al-Shabab expelled Western aid groups including the World Food Program last year and continues to make reaching the vulnerable nearly impossible, with reports that the Islamist militia is pilfering food donations for a profit and preventing starving Somalis from fleeing. Some experts also say that the U.S. government inadvertently contributed to the devastation when it put al-Shabab on its terrorist blacklist, not only withholding food assistance but also withholding funds to any aid workers who paid the tolls that al-Shabab demands for access into Somalia.

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Credit: UN Photo / Stuart Price
A woman holding her malnourished baby waits for food at a displaced persons camp in Somalia, where the United Nations estimates that 3.7 people across the country — half its population — urgently need help.

The United Nations, too, only formally declared a famine in July, eight months after an early warning system set up after the 1985 Ethiopian famine already forecast the impending disaster. Today, a drought appeal issued by the world body is currently 63 percent funded, with a little over $1.5 billion received out of $2.5 billion requested.

The collective human cost resulting from all of these forces has been staggering. Some 13 million people across the region — including 4 million in Somalia — need food aid, according to the United Nations, which estimates that as many as 750,000 could die in the coming months if that aid is not delivered. Already, untold tens of thousands of people have died — it's believed more than half of them were children — and the drought has sparked a mass exodus along what have been called "roads of death," with nearly 1 million Somalis now living as refugees in four neighboring countries — Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen — exacerbating these nations' own woes.

Indeed, while the famine is having the most dramatic impact on the people of strife-ridden Somalia, the drought that precipitated the crisis has, of course, not been restrained by national borders. Consequently, its neighbors are suffering as well, particularly Kenya, where severe pressure on the food supply threatens a large swath of this East African nation's nearly 40 million residents.

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the number of Kenyans younger than 5 years old suffering from severe acute malnutrition — near death — has more than quadrupled since November 2010, to nearly 17,000 in July. The quantity of children of the same age suffering from moderate acute malnutrition is more than three times that figure, at roughly 63,000.

The number of those suffering from food insecurity is also projected to spike, with some 3.75 million farmers and herders pegged to join the ranks of those deemed "extremely food insecure" in the coming months, up from 2.4 million in January.

Although expected rains this winter should ease the situation, the "humanitarian response will remain paramount to save lives," Thandie Mwape, an official with OCHA in Kenya, told The Washington Diplomat.

While the rain will bring much-needed respite, it could also present a new set of problems. "[T]here may be flooding because rains are expected to be above normal for some regions. At the same time, we are planning to prepare for possible flooding in some areas that have also been hard hit by drought," Mwape said. "These simultaneous disasters leave little room for recovery — hence the call for need-based responses that also addresses root causes of vulnerability."

The Kenyan Response

While Somalia has captured the world's attention, Kenya has for years been quietly grappling with the effects of Somali instability and lawlessness, from rampant piracy (which recently spilled onto Kenya's shores, where Somali gunmen killed a British tourist at a high-end beach resort and kidnapped his wife) to an ongoing refugee influx.

The foremost symbol of Kenya's role in today's famine is the Dadaab camp, a sprawling scattering of dwellings that opened 20 years ago to provide temporary relief from the civil war next door but has since become the world's largest home for refugees. While Dadaab, which is located some 100 miles from the Somalia-Kenya border, was built for just 90,000 residents, more than 400,000 people now live there. A smaller camp known as Kakuma houses another 80,000 refugees. In all, some 515,000 Somalis are scraping by in Kenya (which along with Ethiopia is bearing the brunt of the refugee burden). And this number is only growing; according to U.N. figures, another 1,500 are staggering across the Kenyan border on a daily basis.

The situation for Somali refugees in Kenya may be preferable to the risk of starvation in their drought-stricken homeland, but it remains precarious. Life inside the camps is, not surprisingly, characterized by overcrowding and impoverishment. Outbreaks of cholera and measles have been reported. The summer months have brought the emergence of marauding gangs operating along the border, preying on the endless stream of refugees making their way to the camps and often relieving them of what meager possessions they had. Women, who make up the overwhelming majority of adults heading to Kenya, have been the main target of assaults, and stories of rape have become commonplace. Accounts in the Associated Press even reported that the gangs use bizarre scenarios to terrorize their victims, such as ordering men to have sex with their sisters. Unfortunately, Kenyan officials say they simply don't have the capacity to protect the flood of refugees. As a result, the gangs operate with near impunity.

The refugee crisis has provoked conflicted emotions among locals. While many Kenyans living near the Somali border share ethnic ties with the refugees, the wave of hundreds of thousands of starving foreigners places a tremendous strain on local resources.

However, Stephanie Hanson, director of policy and outreach at the One Acre Fund, which focuses on agricultural development in East Africa, said the predominant emotion from Kenyans at large is one of sympathy for the famine victims. "For most people, the drought is not a daily reality," Hanson said. "They have a kind of compassion and concern for the people affected by it, but they themselves are not affected by it."

Still, resentment has been bubbling over among some Kenyans who say they've been shouldering a disproportionate share of the "Somalia problem," as Badu Katelo, Kenya's acting commissioner for refugees, recently put it.

"Just because Somalia is our neighbor, it is not our problem alone. The U.N. should adopt a resolution making it mandatory for everyone to play their role in addressing the situation and resolving conflict in Somalia," Katelo recently told the Guardian newspaper.

Over the summer, however, the Kenyan government came under fire from the United Nations for delaying the opening of a new camp, called Ifo II, to ease congestion in Dadaab. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga pushed back against the criticism that Kenya should have opened Ifo II earlier, saying that for two decades, the government has been asking the international community for help to deal with the Somali refugee crisis.

"They are only now responding when they see people are dying," he said. "The international community is always very later in acting. So the Kenyan government is a victim, not the accused."

Indeed, for months officials have been urging the donor community to not forget the role Nairobi has been playing in famine relief — and that the country deserves its own relief.

"I call upon humanitarian relief agencies to extend similar support to the host community as that provided to the refugees in order to prevent resource conflicts," Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Moses Wetangula said at the opening of a September summit in Nairobi aimed at ending drought emergencies, noting that many Kenyans too are on the brink of starvation.

In fact, a 2010 study commissioned by the Kenyan government with Denmark and Norway found that some Kenyan residents near refugee camps have registered as Somali refugees to obtain assistance.

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Credit: UN Photo / Stuart Price
A mother cradles her dehydrated baby at a Mogadishu hospital. Although aid workers have made some inroads reaching starving Somalis, the al-Shabab Islamist militia continues to make it difficult to reach the most vulnerable.

The U.N.'s Emergency Humanitarian Response Plan has requested $740 million in emergency funding to deal with the refugee situation; as of August, however, 36 percent of that figure remained uncollected.

Averting Disaster

Despite the tensions, the overall response by Kenya has been widely perceived as averting a catastrophe on the scale of what's sweeping Somalia, where tens of thousands are thought to have died. The fundamental difference between the Kenyan government and its counterparts in Somalia, where Islamist rebels have blocked outside access to the regions where food scarcity is most acute, has been its ability to ensure freedom of operation for international aid groups.

Furthermore, years of solid growth — Kenya's economy expanded by 5.6 percent in 2010 and is expected to grow by 5.3 percent this year, and possibly more than 6 percent in 2012, according to government projections — have also given the Kenyan government more budgetary leeway to deal with the crisis. In an attempt to alleviate rising food costs, for example, the government reduced tariffs on imported food stuffs, in effect sacrificing state revenues in exchange for lower household food bills.

The ongoing economic slowdown has complicated the situation, however. Thanks in large part to a weakening currency, the price of basic staples like maize and beans are projected to skyrocket in Kenya, potentially even doubling, in the months to come. The nutritional requirements of the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals in Dadaab and other refugee centers have also increased demand, which has placed further upward pressure on the price of food staples. The small number of producers also drives up prices; according to the World Bank, the price of maize in Kenya is significantly greater than in the United States and other high-income countries.

However, Hanson of the One Acre Fund said that the Kenyan state has proven effective at dealing with past spikes in food prices, and sees little chance of food issues fueling broader political problems, as was the case in much of Africa this year. "Kenya has had food price spikes before, and they've managed it," she said. "I don't see this as being a different situation that is going to upset the political climate."

Nongovernmental and private-sector initiatives have also helped harness the support of the Kenyan people in responding to the drought. Kenyans for Kenya, a fundraising program set up by the Kenya Commercial Bank and the regional telecom giant Safaricom, has allowed Kenyan cell phone users — a population that has grown from negligible size 10 years ago to more than half the nation today — to send donations via text message. The initiative has thus far raised close to $8 million in aid for the hunger-stricken.

On a broader scale, although the famine clearly represents a man-made failure, aid efforts have vastly improved since 1 million people died in the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. Billions of dollars have boosted agricultural production across the region, improving irrigation, farming techniques and food storage to weather future shortfalls. Special high-protein pastes have minimized malnutrition, and early warning systems and disaster risk management strategies have been put in place — which is why nations such as Kenya and Ethiopia haven't nearly been as affected by the famine as Somalia has.

OCHA's Mwape said that support from the international community has been "helpful in averting disasters," though she added that there is "always more that can be done to address drought disasters. Long-term solutions are equally important to ensure that response starts to build resilience against future drought shocks."

Long-Term Resilience

Such resilience will likely be necessary again in the future. For the Kenyans in the drought-scarred northern region, the recent outbreak is just the latest in a long series of threats to food security. "This was a crisis that was ongoing in northern Kenya for years, and very little has been done to change that," Hanson said. "This is always a threat. People have very few mechanisms for mitigating risk."

Furthermore, as climate change propels an outbreak of extreme weather patterns around the globe, such anomalies as the recent drought will likely be more frequent. Solutions need to focus on how to limit the impact of extreme climate cycles on those who are especially vulnerable, including the pastoralists crossing dry lands with their livestock looking for pasture and water — an ingrained segment of the local economy in northern Kenya.

The recent regional summit in Kenya aimed to do just that. There, leaders adopted the so-called Nairobi Action Plan, pledging to end future drought emergencies and invest in arid areas to help livestock communities become more resilient.

"Modern pastoralism can make a way of life in a challenging environment sustainable instead of lurching from one emergency to the next," said Catherine Bragg, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Hanson says that for people whose livelihood rests with their livestock, nurturing the growth of a burgeoning market for animal insurance is a vital first step. "The ideal is to insure the entire herd, but that's really just starting to be possible now," she said. "People aren't used to the idea of insurance; there's a process that has to take place."

But, as the Nairobi summit stressed, a much bigger problem also needs to be addressed if future famines are to be curbed: the lack of a functioning state in Somalia.

If the Kenyans living near the Somali border can secure a safer future through something as simple as livestock insurance, solutions for the Somalis in refugee camps are far more complicated.

Emaciated, destitute Somalis continue to stream into Dadaab each day, while most of the original residents remain "in the overcrowded refugee camps, and only a few get third-country settlement options," Mwape said.

Indeed, in 2011, despite the Horn of Africa famine bringing renewed worldwide attention to the region and its sundry challenges, less than 1,500 Somalis have been granted residency in a third country — roughly the same number that keeps coming to Kenya each day in search of food and survival.


About the Author

Patrick Corcoran is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on June 18, 2014