Right now over 550,000 children in Somalia are malnourished because they don’t have enough food to eat, and if they get any, it’s not nutritionally balanced. This deteriorating situation is alarming and will impact millions of children long after the drought is over. Talking to UNICEF staff on the front line responding to the food crisis, I found out about the main reasons why the drought is having such a devastating effect on children.
Above: Two children wait for nutrition screenings at a UNICEF-assisted health centre near Turkana in Kenya. © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1115/Kate Holt
Food is scarce
Somalians eat a diet of mainly grains and maize, and, if they have the money, goat or camel meat. The drought has meant the grain and maize harvest has failed two years in a row. Camels and goats, key to the subsistence economy, don’t have any water to drink and are dying. This leaves families with no food supply, let alone any income to afford the rising prices of the scarcely available imported food like rice. "For families who have had to flee fighting or are so desperate for food they seek out displaced persons camps, finding this food is a daily struggle," says Maulid Warfa, UNICEF Emergency Specialist for Somalia.
The deadly cycle of Somalia’s food crisis
Children under five are the most affected. When they can get it, rice and maize offer little nutrition for growing minds and bodies, leading to malnourishment. Weak bodies mean children are vulnerable to deadly diseases like measles, polio and whooping cough. With Somalia having one of the lowest immunisation rates in the world, this leaves children who haven’t been immunised critically vulnerable to preventable diseases.
This damaging cycle of malnutrition can start from the time a woman is pregnant. Out of desperation, mothers try find whatever they can to feed their hungry babies, either water or rarely available maize, or camel milk. This precarious situation can soon lead to severe malnourishment, which if not treated immediately can be fatal. This cycle contributes to one in every six children in Somalia dying before their firth birthday – and the numbers are fast getting worse.
What we need to do now
While we hope the drought is temporary until the dry weather subsides, the effects of malnourishment are for life. That is why we urgently need to get lifesaving treatments like therapeutic milk and ready to use therapeutic food out to children who need it most in Somalia, and across East Africa. In the longer term UNICEF is also working to install and restore water sources to help bring safe water to those most vulnerable to drought.
UNICEF is the main provider of high-calorie, ready-to-use therapeutic food in Somalia, but to keep reaching vulnerable children we urgently need funds to help prevent the situation from deteriorating.
UNICEF urgently needs £20.1 million ($31.8 million) for the next 3 months to avoid a descent into famine-like conditions. Please donate now.