12 million Africans suffering in worst drought in 60 years
August 9th, 2011
By Paul Jeffrey
DADAAB, Kenya (CNS) -- It took 32 days for Fatima Mohammed to make it from her drought-racked farm in Somalia to the relative safety of a sprawling refugee settlement in northeastern Kenya. There were days, she recalled, when her children were so thirsty that they could not walk and the men in her family would ferry them ahead, returning to carry two more children in their arms.
The Somali woman and her children are among 12.4 million Africans facing acute food shortages. Because of prolonged drought and civil conflict, Somalis are bearing the brunt of what the United Nations Refugee Agency calls one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world today.
The UN declared a famine July 20 for the southern regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle in Somalia and the refugee agency reported that child deaths are “alarmingly high” as people trek to neighboring countries for food and water.
Fatima Mohammed told Catholic News Service that her family had lived through drought before, but that support from aid agencies helped them survive until the rains returned.
"This time, al-Shabaab won't let them in," she said, referring to the Islamist group that controls portions of Somalia. "So when our animals started dying, our only choice was to stay and die ourselves, or else start walking for Kenya."
They trekked across the desolate stretch of African bush, all 11 members of the family, often walking with other families in large groups to dissuade attacks from wild animals and bandits. They arrived in Dadaab at the end of May.
In addition to those fleeing to Kenya, an estimated 100,000 Somalis have fled to the Somali capital of Mogadishu over the past two months alone in search of food, water, shelter and other assistance, the UN Refugee Agency said Aug. 8. There were already over 370,000 internally displaced people in Mogadishu before this current wave of displacement, the agency said.
As the world has watched, in recent weeks the three camps that make up the Dadaab refugee complex have swollen to barely manageable proportions. Originally designed for 90,000 refugees when it opened two decades ago, the complex today host upward of 390,000 refugees, plus at least 60,000 people who have fled Somalia but are not yet officially registered with camp managers. UN officials say 1,300 newcomers arrive every day.
The rapid growth -- and the dramatic media attention -- has brought an influx of new agencies looking for ways to augment the work of the almost two dozen nongovernmental organizations already here. Among the newcomers is Catholic Relief Services, which sent an assessment team to Dadaab in July.
CRS sponsors programs in other parts of Kenya but it doesn't work in Dadaab. The agency's executive vice president for overseas operations, Sean Callahan, said that while CRS is looking at ways to support the work of others, it's unlikely to get directly involved.
"We want to come here and assist, but we also recognize this is one of those intractable situations," Callahan said. "If you get into the camps, you may never get out. Our priority is helping people become self-sustainable, and this doesn't look like one of those situations. So we're listening and trying to figure out how best we can contribute."
The need for assistance is clear, however.
"Most people here seem to have no strategy to go back, so the Kenyan government is in tight bind. The international community has to step up and help them," Callahan said.
According to the camp manager, Anne Wangari, Dadaab's long-term residents have helped fill the gaps that emerged with the new influx, despite cultural differences.
"Refugees have been coming here since time immemorial, but the new refugees are different than the old refugees, who have been living under Kenyan law for 20 years. They know the usefulness of queuing and a bit of patience. But queuing and courtesy are foreign to the new arrivals, who want to go to the food distributions with a weapon," said Wangari, a former Sister of Loretto who now works for the ACT Alliance, a network of Protestant aid agencies.
"When the newcomers arrive hungry, the refugee community has gone out of its way to receive them and give them supplies, food and clothes," she explained. "This has happened in all the camps. When the United Nations stopped giving biscuits, the old refugees went to the shops and bought biscuits. They let the new arrivals settle on their small plots. The sense of sharing among the Somalis, and among the Muslims, is great."
Callahan said he would prefer to respond at the source of the refugee flow, within Somalia, but security concerns make that impossible.
"We've been in and out of Somalia over the years. We consult with Bishop (Giorgio) Bertin (apostolic administrator of Mogadishu) on how we should act and what we should do, and through him we are funding some projects addressing hunger there. He has advised us to be very cautious about going into Somalia, and currently, given the U.S. position on it, we can't," he said.
The U.S. government designates the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which controls a large portion of Somalia, to be a terrorist group, and thus prohibits U.S. organizations from working in areas it controls.
CRS’ Callahan admitted that the idea of intervening in Somalia is "huge and complicated," but must be addressed.
"If people are ready to risk their lives and cross the border, at times with a dead baby on their back, we're doing something wrong as an international community. We have to step up and start evaluating where we intervene as an international community in order to protect people's rights to life and dignity," he said.
Working with church partners through the region's bishop, CRS has been able to get some aid into the stricken areas of Somalia. For families unable to access aid in Somalia, survival means walking across a harsh desert to camps like the one in Dadaab, in a region of Kenya that is also suffering under drought conditions.
CRS has been active in Kenya for decades with many programs that address agricultural and water needs and have helped mitigated the effect of the drought. But the severity of the drought, coupled with rising food prices, is overwhelming the ability of millions of people in East Africa to cope, CRS staff members in the region are reporting.
"Rains last fall failed completely," explained CRS Africa Team Leader Brian Gleeson. "And spring rains earlier this year were erratic and weak. As a result, farmers have experienced horrible harvests and pastoralists are seeing their livestock dying off."
From the Aug. 12, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.