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Drought and famine threaten life for nomadic Somali herders

July 18, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Many regions in East Africa are at risk of famine for the third time in 25 years. Twenty million people in the war-torn countries of Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia, as well as drought-stricken neighbors like Ethiopia are at risk. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, on the crisis and relief efforts.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The United Nations has called it the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, and, just today, the lead editorial in The Washington Post called it the worst crisis you have never heard of.

Drought and famine threaten 20 million people in the war-torn countries of Yemen, South Sudan, and Somalia, as well as drought-stricken neighbors, such as Ethiopia.

This week, for the first time, eight of the leading U.S.-based international relief organizations are launching the Global Emergency Response Coalition. It’s a joint fund-raising appeal to the American public due to the hunger crisis, which will use social media to amplify its message.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from the breakaway region of Somalia known as Somaliland.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A glimpse from our airplane window showed the stark moonscape of drought stretching for miles on end, where many regions in East Africa are at risk of famine for the third time in 25 years.

More than 360,000 children are malnourished in Somalia; 70,000 of them are in critical condition, according to the World Health Organization. We traveled to Somaliland, a region that declared itself independent of Somalia more than two decades ago.

Its capital, Hargeisa, has seen an influx of mostly nomadic livestock herders fleeing the drought and in some cases fighting in the vast surrounding region. They now live in temporary camps.

Thirty-old-Year-old Hamda Abdilahi Dhamac is the mother of five children. She came here after all of her livestock, some 30 goats and 50 sheep, died from the drought.

HAMDA ABDILAHI DHAMAC, Displaced Livestock Farmer (through interpreter): I used to be part of a family of livestock herders. But now I have been forced to come to this camp, where I don’t have enough money to buy food and water. I am really suffering.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She gets some money from relatives, but says it’s just enough to buy rice and perhaps an onion or tomato. She can’t afford beans or meat.

Like Dhamac, a majority of Somalis make their living by grazing animals. But the drought has wiped out 70 percent of all livestock. Dhamac says she doesn’t know how she will survive in the future.

HAMDA ABDILAHI DHAMAC (through interpreter): I don’t have any hope now. I don’t have a plan for my future.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Humanitarian organizations are distributing emergency food to ease the crisis in the short-term.

Jeremiah Kibanya coordinates relief efforts for World Vision.

JEREMIAH KIBANYA, World Vision: We are providing food commodities to the people who right now not having anything to eat. We will need money to help people get more animals into their family and begin their livelihood.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: How much do you need, and what percentage are you getting?

JEREMIAH KIBANYA: World Vision has requested for about $37 million be able to respond. And, so far, we have received $11 million.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Most of that money, $10 million, has come from the U.S. government. The Seattle-based agency is helping deliver medical care for those most vulnerable to drought: pregnant women and children.

At this clinic in the village of Gabiley, babies are measured and weighed. A simple test with an armband determines their level of nutrition. Yellow means moderate malnutrition. Red means severe. If there’s malnourishment, the mothers are given packets of peanut paste, along with guidance to administer it only to the sickest children, says clinic director Asha Abdi Ali.

It’s very difficult for a mother if she has other children who are hungry to not share it?

ASHA ABDI ALI, Clinic Director: We tell them for the same reason. It’s that these other children are not in need. It is only for this child.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But it’s still difficult?

ASHA ABDI ALI: It’s still difficult.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Keeping people healthy is now made even more difficult, ironically, by rain. Some rains have arrived this year, and that’s been enough to green up the landscape.

But the effects of the drought are going to linger for a much longer time. In fact, more immediately, the threat to public health is even greater. That’s because there are millions of livestock carcasses strewn all over the landscape, and what the rains do is wash contaminants into sources of drinking water.

On a hillside just outside Dilla, a village about an hour’s drive from the capital, carcasses have become an unmanageable problem for Mayor Ibrahim Abdi Haji.

MAYOR IBRAHIM ABDI HAJI, Dilla, Somaliland (through interpreter): It is a bigger problem than we can handle alone. We have asked the government for help to burn those dead animals. But we haven’t received help yet. We’re afraid the community will get waterborne diseases from the animals. We are very scared.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Water which has collected at a nearby earthen dam, has been completely contaminated by both dead and diseased animals.

JEREMIAH KIBANYA: And if people use that water because of desperation, and they don’t have any other water to drink, that poses another threat again to outbreak of waterborne diseases to the communities. That can lead to outbreaks of diseases like acute water diarrhea or cholera.

MAN: I want to show you the best way of making your water clean and safe.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As a short-term solution, World Vision has distributed some 75,000 filters and chlorine tablets, so people can purify their water.

But World Vision’s Kibanya says the other issues, food shortages, limited medical services and lack of jobs, are tougher ones to tackle. There’s a tradition in this region, where droughts are localized, that communities welcome people temporarily displaced by the dry conditions.

But one of Dilla’s newcomers, Roda Yusaf, a mother of seven, isn’t sure she can return to her former livelihood without animals. She plans to stay in Dilla indefinitely.

RODA YUSAF, Displaced Livestock Farmer (through interpreter): When you come from another area, it’s difficult to get a job here. But the community has been very supportive.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Six years ago, Dilla was in a similar position of hosting displaced persons from a severe famine which ended up killing 260,000 people in Somalia. Mayor Haji hopes that doesn’t happen again.

It seems to be a tradition here for sharing and helping people who are in distress in the tribe. After some time, does that become difficult?

IBRAHIM ABDI HAJI (through interpreter): We are starting to reach that point. The last time we supported displaced people who had come here, everybody ended up suffering.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The repeated cycles of drought over the past 25 years is constantly on the minds of aid workers and political leaders.

Saad Ali Shire is Somaliland’s foreign minister.

SAAD ALI SHIRE, Foreign Minister, Somaliland: We need to look into the future and build resilience, so when the drought comes next time — and it will come, because these are now more severe and more frequent, because of the climate change.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He says much greater long-term investment must be made to improve the region’s viability.

SAAD ALI SHIRE: We need to change the way we raise livestock in this country. We very much follow — we raise livestock as we raised it 200 years ago. It’s a nomadic way.

I think we need to settle and grow food for livestock. But we also need, I think, to orient part of our population towards fishing and other activities, industry, services.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, that seems unlikely, at least in the short term, given that urgent appeals to deal with the immediate needs have fallen far short of what the U.N. and aid agencies have requested.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Fred de Sam Lazaro reporting from Dilla, Somaliland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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