Hope on the edge of famine

In the face of famine and one of the worst droughts in recent history, the people of Somalia are displaying remarkable resilience and generosity to help relatives and neighbours pull through.

In the dry sand of Somaliland, northern Somalia, 25-year-old Hamda Muhamed Ibrahim looks on nervously as her four-year-old son Aaden is weighed.

The boy is just over half the weight he should be for his age. There’s a flicker of a smile on Aaden’s face as the Somali Red Crescent nurse makes a joke while measuring his height at the makeshift mobile health clinic.

The clinic is simple but welcoming: a few mats cover the sand under the shade of the only trees in the area, alongside a four-wheel drive stocked with medicines and supplies.

Like most children in Somalia, in the Horn of Africa, Aaden is in danger of severe malnutrition. More than 6.2 million people are experiencing extreme food shortages across a country, still affected by armed conflict.

“Two of my children died in the last 18 months. I have only these two children left and one of them is sick now,” Hamda confides.

I am extremely worried because my child has a fever and I took him to the hospital but I couldn’t afford to pay. Whenever I get a single schilling I use it to buy medicine for him.”

The relief is clear in Hamda’s face as vitamins and immunisations are provided, together with reassurance that Aaden should pull through.
Hamda is eating just one square meal a week to make sure her children have enough to survive.

Generous neighbours sustain life

Three years of harsh drought is taking its toll on all life in Somalia. Rivers are bone dry, most dams and wells have evaporated. The carcases of goats, sheep and cows lie rotting in the sun. Animals still alive are little more than skeletons on legs.

Government officials estimate that at least 80 per cent of all livestock in Somaliland has been decimated. A majority of the population rely on goats, sheep and cows for milk and other food.

“I had 200 livestock and I have 10 goats left. I am extremely sad,” says Hamda. This pattern is repeated in villages across Somalia.

In the small village of Qorijabley, Maryan Axmed tends to one of her last goats as it dies. “It makes me feel so sad because it is my livelihood,” she says, as her baby cries with hunger.

Before this devastating drought, Maryan’s family had 50 goats and sheep. Now only a handful of sick goats remain. “It’s so difficult. Once these goats are gone I will have nothing,” she says.

Maryan’s sister Sarah, has just one weak sheep left alive from 80 before the drought began. “How will I feed my six daughters? I’m worried about whether they will live, or die like these animals.”

Sarah’s family has no food left at all. She is relying on the generosity of her relatives and neighbours to feed her children. Sarah’s mother managed to borrow a small cup of rice. It will be the only meal the six children eat that day.

Water dries up fast

In the burning sun, it takes Sarah an hour to fetch the only water near her village. The well is green and polluted.

Outbreaks of cholera and acute diarrhoea are becoming more frequent in Somalia and other areas in East Africa, increasing the risk of death on a large scale.

Somali Red Crescent volunteers are providing water purification tablets and filters to help prevent children from becoming sick after drinking contaminated water.

A Red Crescent volunteer helps Sarah carry the heavy water container on the hot walk back to her thatched home.

And yet, Sarah is one of the lucky few. Her village is relatively close to water.

In a nearby village, Faduuma Ali treks for several hours to find water most days. The well closest to her village has been empty for three months.

The day we meet Faduuma, a kind businessman had just delivered a truckload of water to the well, providing life-saving water to Faduuma’s community and their emaciated livestock. “When I give this water to the animals and families, they will use up the water in one day.”

Life-saving care with mobile health clinics

Every day at first light, mobile health clinics race across the parched Somali lands to provide emergency nutrition, immunisations and medical care, preventing dehydration and death.

Noor Ismail is an experienced nurse working with one of six mobile clinics in Somaliland. He is fearful a catastrophe is just around the corner. “I come to this village once a week and each time there are more malnourished children. The number is increasing day-by-day.”

Around two-thirds of the children in the area are malnourished, many of them severely. “I’m just sad I can’t do more to help,” Noor says. “If there is no rain soon most of the children will die.”

Immunisations against deadly diseases, including measles, are being rolled out urgently.

The mobile health clinics provide life-saving care to areas where there are no other medical facilities. Yet they are running out of funds rapidly.

“Australian Red Cross is supporting these mobile health units and are aiming to see them double over the next few months,” says our International Disaster Response Manager, Jess Lees.

It’s the worst crisis Jess has seen in many years.

“The situation facing communities here is extremely serious. If the rains don’t come the fear is there will be millions of people pushed into famine.”

Despite the hardships faced by so many families who are living on minimal food and water, Jess points to their incredible strength and generosity, helping each other survive.

“Although the situation is desperate, the people are not desperate. One of the positive things we are seeing is how communities are banding together to share resources and get each other through what is really a tough time,” she says.

“That sense of community that is being fostered is really a story of hope that we should be telling.”

Words by Antony Balmain and photos by Peter Caton/Australian Red Cross

This crisis is too big to ignore. Please donate now to help people facing starvation and malnutrition in South Sudan, Somalia and other parts of East Africa.