1. Home
  2. Africa

Famine in Somalia: Twice in six years?

A commentary from 10 leading academics and humanitarian professionals

Families queue for food in Badbado IDP camp, Mogadishu Kate Holt/IRIN
Families queue for food in Badbado IDP camp, Mogadishu (Jan 2012)

Six years after a famine killed a quarter of a million people in Somalia, the country is threatened with another. Famines only occur if political decision-makers allow them to; it is imperative that the right decisions are made now. But have we learnt enough from the mistakes of 2011?

The context has changed since 2011. Somalia now has a functioning – if limited and fragile – state apparatus. Some of the areas worst affected by the last crisis have since received considerable resilience investment (although how far such programming has helped people prepare for or cope with the current crisis is not yet known).

On the other hand, the current drought is more widespread than that of 2011. Global competition for humanitarian resources is fiercer. Parts of South Sudan have already been declared to be experiencing famine, and the situation there is likely to worsen substantially over the next four to five months, while Nigeria and Yemen also face the imminent threat of famine. Across the world, a record 70 million people are estimated to need emergency food aid in 2017. Yet there are fears some donors, notably the US, will significantly cut their aid budget this year, including for humanitarian assistance. 

Worsening conditions

Food security, nutrition and health are rapidly deteriorating in affected areas of the Sool Plateau in the north of Somalia and in the “sorghum belt” in the south. In late 2016, the deyr rains failed in the south and the earlier gu rains were well below average, bringing national grain yields to their lowest in a decade. Predictions for the coming gu season in the affected areas are not optimistic

Food prices are rising. The purchasing power of typical households has declined by 20 percent in some areas of the north and by as much as 60 percent in the hardest-hit areas in the south – repeating the dangerous pattern seen in early 2011. Large-scale livestock deaths are already occurring. The Shabelle River, which provides irrigation water and a livestock refuge in the south, ran dry at some locations in January and remains dangerously low

The highest risk of famine is among marginalised populations in the south, in areas under the control of the al-Shabab insurgency, and among populations in the riverine and inter-riverine areas most affected by famine in 1992 and 2011. 

People are already on the move in search of employment or aid, and this “distress migration” is likely to increase sharply. Alarmingly, 73 percent of children who arrived in Ethiopia in January and February were found to be in a state of severe or moderate acute malnutrition.

Killer diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and measles are the most frequent cause of famine mortality. Already, outbreaks of cholera and acute watery diarrhoea have been noted, and measles vaccination coverage remains low in most areas of the country. Cholera and diarrhoeal diseases will worsen in the coming rainy season. 

In brief, while Somalia is not yet in famine, the humanitarian situation developing on the ground is increasingly dire. 

Too late to be gearing up?

If there was an overwhelming lesson from 2011, it was that the time for rapid action is before the situation deteriorates into famine. The window for early action to prevent widespread mortality in 2017 is rapidly closing – indeed it is already late in the process to be trying to mitigate the crisis.

The UN issued a pre-famine alert on 2 February, and the Somali government declared a national disaster on 28 February. Many different parties will have to play roles in the response, including the recently elected government in Mogadishu and regional authorities around the country, as well as the Somali diaspora and business communities. 

Research on the 2011 famine showed that a variety of local and international Somali groups played a central role in the effort to protect lives and livelihoods in that crisis, and all are active currently. The most basic requirement for the international community is to avoid undermining these efforts and to support them where possible.

But international humanitarian organisations have a critical role to play as well. Despite large recent contributions by donors such as Britain’s DFID, only about a third of a requested $825 million has been made available to address this year’s crisis, just as assistance urgently needs to be scaled up.

There are limits to logistical capacity on the ground in Somalia, in addition to access constraints. Cash transfers were a major part of the response in 2011 and will again be critical in 2017. The extent to which this response is cash-based will be a major test of the “Grand Bargain” agreed by donors and governments at last year’s World Humanitarian Summit. 

Beyond cash, priorities now include nutritional programmes, public health interventions that include cholera management, measles vaccination campaigns, and water and sanitation. 

Both the international humanitarian effort and local authorities need to be ready for large-scale population movements, and should anticipate their likely destinations. Mortality was the highest among those displaced in 2011.

Beyond the resource constraints

The capacity and ability of humanitarian agencies to reach affected populations – and more critically, such populations’ access to water, markets, and aid – is severely constrained, particularly in the south. Al-Shabab may be lifting constraints on people’s movements, enabling some to seek assistance, and may itself be providing some relief, but the group continues to limit humanitarian access, particularly to external agencies. And most Western donors have counter-terrorism restrictions aimed at preventing aid falling into the hands of groups such as al-Shabab. 

Such access constraints were chief among the reasons the external response to the 2011 crisis was so late, and in some areas absent altogether. While some subsequent remedial measures, such as licences for humanitarian assistance issued by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, remain in play, agencies are still very wary of security and reputational risks. 

An effective, needs-based response must ensure that the “acceptable” level of reputational risk is adjusted. Al-Shabab must be persuaded to grant access to humanitarian agencies that operate according to the principles of neutrality and impartiality. At the same time, donors must make their intentions completely transparent to agencies – both Somali and international – regarding the legal risks. 

Western governments must ensure that legal instruments do not limit the flow of funds from the diaspora to Somalia. Remittances were a substantial part of the overall response to the famine in 2011, but, since then, several Somali money transfer companies have had their Western banking ties severed because of security concerns. Further restrictions could be catastrophic: Unless legal constraints prohibit it, the transfer of funds from the diaspora to affected communities will be a substantial component of many people’s ability to survive this crisis as well.

But not all Somalis have strong links to remittance and business networks. Of particular concern now because of their greater vulnerability to shocks are those historically marginalised and minority groups who mostly live in rural areas of southern Somalia largely controlled by al-Shabab and who depend on agriculture. 

On the move 

Even if the response is rapidly ramped up, the current trends of population displacement are likely to increase sharply in the coming weeks. Some will go to urban centres and internally displaced people’s settlements inside Somalia; others will likely flee across international borders – as they did in 2011 and earlier crises.

It is appropriate that Ethiopia is allowing Somalis in. Given the extreme nature of the current emergency, Kenya should carefully consider the implications of its policies on Somali refugees. The recent decision of the Kenyan high court to prevent the forced repatriation of refugees is welcome.

On 23 March, the Kenyan government reported that it would open its border with Somalia to boost trade and allow the flow of people between the two countries. What remains unclear is how this will affect the flow of refugees into Kenya, and, for now, access by refugees to the camps in Dadaab is highly restricted. This may increase the risk of excess mortality. Kenya itself is also suffering from the effects of the regional drought: rates of acute malnutrition higher than 30 percent have been reported in three northern counties; 100,000 children under five are estimated to be severely malnourished; and up to three million people face a food security crisis and require assistance. 


At this point, decisions must be made that prioritise life-saving interventions for the most vulnerable population groups. This means that international donors and agencies, governments, and local authorities must negotiate access as well as scale up and anticipate where needs will be greatest – particularly as people begin to move out from the areas most badly affected. 

Humanitarian budgets have grown in recent years, but have not kept pace with the level of assessed need. The popular sentiment this year in the US and some other countries appears to be “me first” (“and the rest of the world can take care of itself”). But people are moved to support others in extreme times, and such solidarity is sorely needed today. Without popular support, international humanitarian assistance will not be able to keep up with demand. Beyond the need for financial assistance in the short term, the longer-term need is the political will to address the underlying causes of the conflicts and other drivers of crisis.

We know the magnitude and severity of the crisis facing Somalia and its likely consequences – as we do for South Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and other countries. But we also know how to prevent these crises. The time for action is now, and the timeframe for preventing widespread mortality is rapidly closing. Political solutions are required, but the need for resources is clear, as is the need for all parties to respect International Humanitarian Law and ensure that people have access to life-protecting assistance.

Daniel Maxwell

Henry J. Leir Professor in Food Security Feinstein International Center, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Boston

Peter Hailey

Director, Centre for Humanitarian Change, Nairobi

Abdullahi Khalif*

Senior Regional Food Security Advisor, Swiss International Cooperation Horn of Africa Office (former head of FEWSNET Somalia), Nairobi

Nisar Majid

Visiting Fellow, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, Boston 

Rob Bailey

Research Director of Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House, London

Andrew Seal

Senior Lecturer in International Nutrition, Institute for Global Health, University College London

Francesco Checchi

Professor of Epidemiology and International Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London

Grainne Moloney*

Chief, Nutrition Section, UNICEF Kenya (former head of FSNAU), Nairobi

Nancy Balfour

Director, Centre for Humanitarian Change, Nairobi

Mohamed Jelle

Research Associate, Institute for Global Health, University College London

(*The views of Abdullahi Khalif and Grainne Moloney incorporated in this editorial are their own and not those of the Swiss International Cooperation or UNICEF)

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.