A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
Adan Kabelo, the head of Oxfam GB’s work in Somalia, writes from Lower Juba in southern Somalia, where a devastating drought and ongoing conflict has left people facing starvation:
On the edge of Dobley town, there are hundreds of desperate people. Crowded together in makeshift shelters under the bare branches of acacia trees, they have come from all over southern Somalia – by foot and donkey cart – to try and cross the border into Kenya. Some have walked for two weeks to get here, and hundreds more people arrive every day. All of them have virtually nothing to eat.
On a small fire, a family is cooking a single mango to share between two or three children. Many people here are farmers whose crops have died after a year without rain. Others are pastoralists whose animals have perished. The situation here is truly shocking, and as the local elders warned me, we are facing a terrible human catastrophe unless the world acts quickly.
Conflict, drought and rising prices
There have been two seasons of no or inadequate rain – the last good rainfall was in April 2010 – so now there is hardly any water or pasture left. Food is scarce, and when it is available it is too expensive. Since January the price of local staples such as maize and sorghum has almost doubled.
The ongoing conflict and insecurity in Somalia makes the crisis even worse. Malnutrition rates are rising, yet the only hospital in Dobley was bombed and destroyed during fighting a few months ago. There is no access by road to other parts of Somalia, so no food can be transported from areas where it is available. The only place people can move to safely is Kenya.
Amazingly, Dobley is considered better off than other places in the Lower Juba region. A little rain fell here last month – while other areas have remained bone dry – meaning the town’s two boreholes are now able to pump some water. Oxfam’s team and local Somali partners are working around the clock to keep them running. But in the early morning, as we head out to the water points, it is clear that this has brought other problems.
Animal carcasses litter the road to the borehole and the stench of dead cattle is in the air. When we arrive there are hundreds of people and about 15,000 emaciated cows, camels, sheep and goats crowded around trying to get water to stay alive. The animals’ condition is so bad it is hard to imagine how they can survive more than a couple of months.
They have come from dry areas miles around, where no rain has fallen. Other than this, the nearest working water point is 80 kilometres away. The boreholes are pumping over 20 hours a day, increasing the risk of breakdown and making it difficult for our engineers to maintain them. There is simply not enough water to meet the demand, and people are facing critical shortages.
An old man I spoke to said this is the worst situation he can remember since 1995. People are no longer talking about their animals dying – they are talking about people dying soon.
The threat of a major crisis
Families are fleeing the conflict and the drought – but it is not clear where they will end up, or what they will find there. One elderly man reminded me of a Somali proverb: “You use your feet to escape during war and drought.” Many of them told me they are fleeing to Kenya. But parts of northeastern Kenya, just across the border, have had as little rain as Somalia and also face severe food and water shortages.
Others go to the Dadaab refugee camps – the largest in the world, where over 300,000 Somalis have fled two decades of war. But the camp is seriously overcrowded, and almost 10,000 people a week are now arriving. A vital camp extension, known as Ifo II, that has been built to take care of new arrivals and ease the overcrowding, has been shut down by the Kenyan government. As a result, thousands of newly arrived families are sheltering in desperate conditions outside.
People fleeing war and drought must not be turned away by Kenya. But people inside Somalia also need help. Humanitarian access and open roads needs to be guaranteed by parties to the conflict. And donors – sometimes reluctant to fund humanitarian projects in Somalia – must release funds to ensure agencies can respond now, before it is too late.