Continuing drought is forcing people in Somalia to move en masse once again, a mere 6 years after the country faced a brutal famine that led to the deaths of 260,000 people in the south. The humanitarian community is racing against time to meet the food, shelter and medical needs of millions of people affected by the drought, including thousands who have fled their homes and are arriving each day in cities and towns across the country.
It’s Sunday morning — the first working day of the week in Somalia — and Sadia Omar Abdi sits in a busy shop in the centre of Dolow town with her 2-month-old baby nestled in her arms. Around her, customers and shopkeepers are bartering, waving their hands in the air and making dramatic faces as they haggle over prices.
As a shop assistant begins piling some of Sadia’s orders on the ground — pasta, vegetable oil, sugar, several cans of tuna — Sadia pulls out a card from a little plastic sleeve in her hand and hands it to the shopkeeper. He inserts it into a Point of Sale (POS) machine, punches a few buttons, and then motions to Sadia, who places her finger onto a scanner. A few seconds later, the POS spits out a receipt listing Sadia’s purchases and the remaining balance on her card.
The price of unabated drought
This seemingly normal shop scene offers a momentary respite from the harsh reality brought on by severe drought in Somalia. Nearly 3 million people — a quarter of the country’s estimated population — are in urgent need of food assistance. Since November 2016, over half a million people so far have been internally displaced as a result of the drought. This number is expected to rise as the situation continues to deteriorate.
Sadia and her family are one of 4,200 households — about 25,000 people — currently receiving assistance from the World Food Programme in Dolow, a sleepy, dusty town in southern Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia. Most are internally displaced people (IDPs) who have fled this drought or previous ones, and have come here in the hopes of finding help — either by crossing over into Ethiopia, or by seeking assistance and shelter in one of the two growing IDP camps in town.
Thanks to funding from donors such as the European Commission, WFP is distributing e-vouchers that enable Sadia and many others like her to buy the food of their choice from 14 WFP-registered shops around Dolow.
Sadia and her family have been in Dolow since January this year, after fleeing drought and insecurity in her village in Bakool, about 120 kilometers east of the town. Shortly upon their arrival, they were registered onto WFP’s digital assistance delivery platform, SCOPE, and have been receiving monthly food voucher assistance since. Sadia feels they have been lucky.
“Back home we had nothing left, and here we’ve found food and assistance,” she says. “We made the right decision to come.”
When aid makes an impact
Since January, about 18,000 people — or about 3,000 families — have arrived in Dolow, either on foot or by truck from neighboring regions in the south, effectively doubling the IDP population. IDPs now outnumber the local host population five to one, adding serious pressure on already stretched resources.
At the same time, the two rivers that intersect and cradle Dolow and previously were the life source of its population have all but dried up. For the moment, nearly the entire town survives on humanitarian assistance.
The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO) is providing a lifeline for the thousands of people left with nothing but each other, the minimum of possessions and little to no options for livelihoods. SCOPE is the means to deliver this lifeline.
The woman leading that effort is Martha Artharini, a 10-year veteran WFP staffer originally from Indonesia who now heads up WFP’s SCOPE e-voucher operations in the local office that covers Somalia’s southern border region. With the scale-up of emergency drought operations, Martha is working non-stop to make sure that those who need assistance receive their cards and e-vouchers on time.
“The work is challenging and the hours are long,” Martha says, “But I know that each time I click on the screen to confirm enrollment in an intervention, I’m feeding a family. That keeps me going.”
Even retailers are benefiting. A few shops down from where Sadia sits, another shop owner, Hilaal, says that since the scale-up began earlier this year, about 80 percent of her monthly revenue now comes from customers with e-vouchers from WFP. In fact, like many other shops, the items she stocks reflect the most popular items they buy.
When it’s time to go
All paid up, Sadia shifts her baby into position and looks around one last time before she stands. Her brief visit is over, until next month when she returns with a new e-voucher allocation.
She steps out to find transport to take her newly purchased food back to her unemployed husband and their five children, waiting in the hut they share in the IDP camp.