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July 24, 2011

Perfect Storm - Why Famine Hit Southern Somalia First

by Gabe Joselow

The regions of southern Somalia devastated by famine used to be the breadbaskets [major food-producing areas] of the country. The deadly combination of drought, inflation and the militant group, al-Shabab, however, have turned a food crisis into a famine.

While the rest of the south and other parts of East Africa also are facing a dire food emergency, two regions of Somalia - Bakool and Lower Shabelle - have been hit the hardest and are the only areas currently designated to be in famine. Ironically, these two regions also happen to be among the biggest food-growing areas in Somalia, and in better times, could feed the country.

But a cycle of drought, the worst in 60 years, destroyed the region's last two harvests. United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden described what happened next.

“What happened was that the sorghum production locally was very badly hit," said Bowden. "That had a knock-on effect in the local economy and caused massive price inflation. So you got people's reserves and assets, which were being held in livestock, but not camels, were severely reduced. At the same time, food prices went up, including imported food, and they had 270 percent price inflation.”

Lower Shabelle, Bakool regions hit hard

Skyrocketing food prices hit the people of Lower Shabelle and Bakool especially hard because many of them are agro-pastoralists, who make a living off of subsistence farming or livestock.  

The drought destroyed their crops or killed the animals they had. And because of inflation, they could not trade remaining livestock for a fair price.

The chief technical advisor of the U.N. food security unit for Somalia, Grainne Moloney, said agro-pastoralists in this region are particularly at risk.

“It's a very vulnerable group, they tend to be marginalized from markets, they tend to be marginalized from the higher-potential cropping areas, they have a very low potential there," said Moloney. "The farmers there are really subsistence farmers and if a rain failure hits them, they have no alternative livelihood.”

Al-Shabab worsens problem

But cycles of drought are not totally uncommon in the area, raising the question of why farmers who knew this were not storing grain or taking other precautions.

Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group said part of the blame belongs to the al-Qaida-linked militant group, al-Shabab.

“Al-Shabab have been encouraging cash crop agriculture, especially sesame seed growing in parts of the Shabelle, and this has actually been compounding the problem of food insecurity because communities that used to grow food for themselves, and used to store them in granary for hard times, now have no fallback,” said Abdi.

Bakool and Lower Shabelle are strongholds of the Islamist group, which taxes residents to pay for its war against the central Somali government.

Residents, therefore, were forced to grow crops that would make money and not necessarily sustain them through poor harvests.

Extremists block aid

Al-Shabab's authority in the regions also severely limited the activities of aid groups, who say they could have done more to help vulnerable populations under normal circumstances.

In the end, though, these two regions are really not that much different from other parts of southern Somalia.

It takes three conditions for a region to be declared in famine - extreme food shortages, malnutrition and death. U.N. food security analyst Moloney said Bakool and Shabelle were simply the first to meet all of these grim criteria.

“The defining character was actually the fact that they reached the mortality rates and the other regions didn't, but that's not to say that the other regions are really any less affected,” said Moloney.

If conditions stay the same, the U.N.- and U.S.-backed Famine Early Warning System predicts that the rest of southern Somalia will be declared to be in famine within the next one to two months.