Humanitarian groups in famine-hit Somalia say thousands are dying while deliveries of desperately needed aid from big international agencies may be weeks, perhaps months away.
The delays are adding to the frustrations of aid providers overwhelmed by the human tragedy unfolding in the Horn of Africa.
Each day brings new evidence of the magnitude of the famine gripping Somalia. At Mogadishu’s Banadir Hospital, the main intake center for severe malnutrition cases, pediatrician Dr. Lul Mohammed says the number of new cases is staggering.
"I see an average 150-200 children every day. Every day we see 2 or 3 children dying. In July 90 children died, 3,155 were admitted in July. August is same. The number [dying] is increasing because they are coming later. All are severe. They have 2-3 things together. Sometimes severe malnutrition, severe dehydration, severe anemia, and the survival rate is very low," Mohammed said.
Despite these high death rates, those who make it to Banadir Hospital are considered the lucky few. Dr. Iftiqar Mohammed of the Islamic Relief Agency in Somalia says most famine victims die without ever seeing a doctor.
"The mortality rate is, it is difficult to figure out what is the number. Yesterday at one camp, 7 children died, and they [were] buried. Day before yesterday 9, [at a camp that] has only 1,600 households," Mohammed said.
Dr. Mohammed says the latest fear is that the famine has triggered a cholera epidemic in the tent camps that have sprung up all around Mogadishu as families stream into the capital from rural areas held by the al-Qaeda linked al-Shabab militant group.
"Our concern now is whether it can be cholera outbreak. We don’t know. We know diarrhea outbreak is there, but we are not sure whether it is cholera. But today’s and yesterday’s admissions at Banadir alert us whether it may be a cholera outbreak," Mohammed said.
Definition of Famine:
The word famine is a term that is not used lightly by humanitarian organizations. The United Nations describes a crisis as a famine only when the following conditions are met:
- Malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent
- More than two people per 10,000 people are dying each day
- Severe lack of food access for large population
Almost half of Somalia's population, 3.7 million people, are affected by the current crisis with malnutrition rates in southern Somalia the highest in the world, surpassing 50 per cent in some areas. The United Nations says it is likely that tens of thousands have already have died, the majority of those being children.
The drought that has led to the current famine in parts of Somalia has also affected people in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Previous Famines in the Horn of Africa:
- Somalia 1991-1992
- Ethiopia 1984-1985
- Ethiopia 1974
Dr. Mohammed worries the aid on the way from the big international humanitarian agencies may not arrive in time. The World Food Program and others have little or no infrastructure for delivering aid in Somalia. They say even if tons of food arrives at Mogadishu port, getting it to those most in need will be difficult and dangerous.
The Sri Lankan physician is openly dismissive of the United Nations agencies based in nearby Kenya charged with providing aid in Somalia. He says their vantage point in Nairobi leaves them with no idea how bad conditions are.
"When we are sitting in Nairobi you don’t feel the severity of the situation here. Since you don’t see by your own eyes, you rely only on data and information gathering from the field. Figures only, but you don’t see the reality. But when you come here, that’s what we would prefer the UN organizations, UNICEF, WHO everyone, make a field visit and see, not just confined with the airport, come mingle with the IDPs [displaced people] hear them, what is the need, and see what is going on," Mohammed said.
News agency reports reaching Somalia say the big push is on in world capitals to gather the cash and the supplies of food and other life-saving materials for Somalia as fast as possible. A consortium of doctors and health professionals from Arab countries is due to arrive within days, and the head of the UN disaster relief organization OCHA is making an emergency visit to Mogadishu.
But for those doctors and parents watching children die each day, the frustrations are mounting. They ask, “how long will it take, and how many more must die?"