Horn of Africa drought: Why is Somalia worst affected?

Somalis walk down the main road leading to the refugee camps around Dadaab, Kenya (13 July 2011) The drought in the Horn of Africa has thrown the region into even more chaos

Somalia is a failed state by anyone's reckoning, and while no-one is questioning the severity of the current tragedy, it is another matter assessing just how bad it is.

Gathering accurate and comprehensive information from inside Somalia has been a challenge for 20 years now. The country has been without a national government since the overthrow of President Mohamed Siad Barre in January 1991.

The latest drought in the Horn of Africa has thrown the region into even more chaos, and led to an unwelcome movement of Somalis into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia.

It is being called "the worst drought in north-east Africa for 60 years".

However, given the dramatic changes in the region in that time, the description is largely meaningless.

This is certainly one of the driest years in decades, but beyond that it is impossible to make comparisons about the impact on the population of the Horn.

For one thing, the population of some countries has more than doubled in the last 30-40 years.

According to World Bank figures, the population of Ethiopia in 1973 was 31 million. Today, it is in excess of 80 million.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) says that changing weather patterns have made droughts more common in the region.

"Communities that used to have the relative luxury of several years of regular rainfall to recover from the occasional year of drought are now learning to live in an almost constant state of food insecurity due to a lack of water," said WFP head Josette Sheeran.

More often than not, though, conflict has been a contributing factor at times of hardship.

Fighting, food and famine

The 1973 famine in Ethiopia occurred against the background of a creeping coup against Emperor Haile Selassie.

The 1984 famine there came at the height of the war between the government of Col Mengistu Haile Mariam and Tigrayan rebels.

Extended drought is causing a severe food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Weather conditions over the Pacific means the rains have failed for two seasons and are unlikely to return until October.
An estimated 12 million people in the region are affected by the drought. The UN has declared a famine in six areas of southern Somalia, where it says 750,000 people could die in the coming months in the absence of adequate response.
The humanitarian problem is made worse by conflicts. Militants had lifted a ban on aid agencies operating in parts of southern Somalia, but have since accused Western groups of exaggerating the scale of the crisis and again limited access.
Since the beginning of 2011, around 15,000 Somalis each month have fled into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia looking for food and water. The refugee camp at Dadaab, in Kenya, has been overwhelmed by more than 420,000 people.
Farmers unable to meet their basic food costs are abandoning their herds. High cereal and fuel prices had already forced them to sell many animals before the drought and their smaller herds are now unprofitable or dying.
The refugee problem may have been preventable. However, violent conflict in the region has deterred international investment in long-term development programmes, which could have reduced the effects of the drought.
Development aid would focus on reducing deforestation, topsoil erosion and overgrazing and improving water conservation. New roads and infrastructure for markets would help farmers increase their profits.
The result of climate conditions, conflict and lack of investment is that millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are currently existing on food rations in what is said to be East Africa's worst drought for 60 years.
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And the 1992 food crisis in Somalia occurred as the country was descending into anarchy.

This year, the food shortages in Somalia have been exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian access to many areas, and accompanied by a sharp increase in food prices.

However, the numbers in need of food assistance are not yet anywhere near the 1992 figures.

The UN says 10 million people are currently on the verge of starvation.

In 1992, prior to the US-led intervention in Somalia, the number of people needing help was reckoned to be more than 23 million.

So aid workers are trying to respond as best they can, without becoming bogged down in comparisons.

To contain the unfolding humanitarian situation in the camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, the United Nations and international aid agencies desperately need access to areas of Somalia where insecurity is rife and where the militant Islamist group, al-Shabab, is in control.

WFP says it withdrew from al-Shabab-controlled areas of southern Somalia at the beginning of 2010 because of threats to the lives of UN staff, and the imposition of unacceptable operating conditions, including the imposition of informal taxes and a demand that no female staff work there for the WFP.

Now though, the organisations which have found it difficult, if not impossible, to operate in areas held by al-Shabab, are looking at the possibility of returning to southern Somalia.

Islamist concessions

The insurgents have said that local and international aid agencies will be allowed to assist people affected by the drought.

The latest arrangements have still to be put to the test.

A Somali woman waits to register at Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya (13 July 2011 Somalis fleeing to Kenya report that militants at checkpoints have tried to stop people leaving

"Al-Shabab may be on the back foot in places," says one regional analyst.

Somalis fleeing to Kenya report that militants at checkpoints have tried to stop people leaving, but people are fleeing across the desert nonetheless.

The view from Ethiopia, one of the powerbrokers in the Horn of Africa, is that al-Shabab is desperate to use the drought as a means of regaining lost popularity and trust among local communities.

Both the US and UK describe al-Shabab, which has links to al-Qaeda, as a terrorist group.

It has fought Somalia's weak UN-backed Government and the African Union's peacekeepers since 2007.

Al-Shabab is thought to control much of southern Somalia, including the key Afgooi corridor that links the countryside in the south to the capital, Mogadishu.

It is reckoned to be stronger in the agricultural areas between the Juba and Shebelle Rivers, whereas the local clans tend to hold sway in the pastoral areas. The government claims to exercise authority in the far south, near the Kenyan border.

No soft landing

The insecurity, compounded by the drought, has led to migration in all directions in the region.

Uncharacteristically, Somalis have been streaming into camps set up in war-ravaged Mogadishu. Traditionally, city residents have taken refuge in the countryside when fighting in the capital has intensified.

Some people have been heading north to the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. Others, of course, have been crossing into Kenya and Ethiopia.

It is also thought likely that people affected by drought in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia have headed south into Kenya.

For those on the move, there is no soft landing anywhere.

North-eastern Kenya is an impoverished part of the country, historically neglected by government in Nairobi.

Much the same can be said about Ethiopia's attitude towards its Somali Region.

The third option, being internally displaced within Somalia, holds even greater risks for those who are vulnerable.

The late President Barre would scarcely recognise the country he ruled for more than 20 years, with perhaps one exception. Drought is still a recurring feature of life in the Horn.

Map of drought in the Horn of Africa

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