About 43,000 people died last year from the drought in Somalia, according to international agencies and the government, which on Monday released the first official death toll about the record drought devastating the Horn of Africa nation.
At least half of those deaths were children under the age of 5 who had been living in south-central Somalia, the center of the drought crisis. Experts called the drought the worst in decades even before the release of the report, which was conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and released by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Somali government.
The researchers warned that in the first six months of this year, too, between 18,000 and 34,000 people are likely to succumb to the drought.
The new estimates illustrated the grim impact of the drought, which has led to massive displacement, outbreaks of disease and acute malnutrition among children — affecting millions not only in Somalia but also in Kenya and Ethiopia. The drought has wiped out millions of livestock animals that families depend on for food and income, and left nearly half of Somalia’s population of 16 million hungry.
Global warming increases the likelihood of drought, and extreme weather events, some linked to climate change, have wrecked communities across Somalia, leading to recurring droughts, flash floods, cyclones and increasing temperatures.
Farmlands have also been devastated after five consecutive poor rainy seasons, exacerbating hunger in a nation already contending with sharp increases in food, fuel and fertilizer prices stemming from the war in Ukraine and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“From the very beginning of this drought, the W.H.O. has clearly stated that the drought is a health crisis as much as it is a food and climate crisis,” Dr. Mamunur Rahman Malik, the Somalia representative for the W.H.O., said in a statement following the study’s release.
“We are racing against time to prevent deaths and save lives that are avoidable,” he said.
The latest figures were released just three months after the United Nations said that Somalia had narrowly averted a famine but said there was a strong chance one could take place between April and June this year. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, an organization for monitoring global hunger, defines a famine as when 20 percent of households in an area face an extreme lack of food, 30 percent of children there are suffering from acute malnutrition, and two adults or four children out of every 10,000 are dying every day from starvation. Some experts and humanitarian workers say a formal declaration of a famine could open up more aid for Somalia.
Part of the reason that Somalia avoided a full-blown famine included the boost in funding from donors and the quick response by aid agencies and local authorities to reach those in need, U.N. officials said. But the United Nations said the situation remains catastrophic, and put out an appeal for $2.6 billion to assist the millions of people in need.
The drought is ravaging Somalia even as the country faces deepening insecurity and political instability. The central government in the capital, Mogadishu, is engaged in an all-out offensive against the Qaeda-linked group Al Shabab, and has received backing from local militias, African Union troops and nations including the United States. Al Shabab has viciously retaliated as it lost territory and soldiers, targeting security forces and civilians, destroying wells and blowing up trucks carrying food relief.
The estimates released on Monday show the death toll was higher in the first year of the drought in 2021 than during a 2017 crisis, when about 31,400 people died. But it did not compare to the devastating 2011 famine, when about 30,000 people died every month and nearly 260,000 people, about half of them children under five, died over the whole year.
Dr. Ali Haji Adam Abubakar, the Somali minister of health, warned in a statement that the country desperately needed a surge in funding for food, clean water and medical services to avoid another calamity on that scale.
If it does not, he said, “those vulnerable and marginalized will pay the price of this crisis with their lives.”
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