I recently visited the town of Baidoa in Somalia that is now ground zero for the aid response to a starvation crisis that has left almost three million people hungry and hundreds of thousands of children at death’s door.
I witnessed aid workers trying to help children and adults combat acute water diarrhea (cholera), which kills fast, and is particularly vicious on small children who are poorly nourished. The cause of acute water diarrhea is quite simple, as is the solution- consumption of dirty water, contaminated by waste.
Drought and the resulting starvation are bad enough. But very often it is not the hunger that kills; it is diseases like cholera and measles that prey on the weak. In the case of cholera, the loss of body fluids causes severe dehydration and the body rapidly shuts down. So far, 36,000 cases of water diarrhea/cholera have been recorded.
At a stabilisation centre, I saw medics fixing intravenous (IV) drips to rehydrate patients; among them was a woman so ravaged by hunger and disease, she was oblivious to what was going on around her.
Outside the crowded centre sat women and small children, awaiting admission. As I sat to collect my thoughts, a nine-year-old boy was rushed in, unresponsive, with the whites of his eyes showing. The medics immediately put an IV line into a vein to rehydrate him.
May he live, may he live’, I prayed silently. Thankfully after a short while he recovered consciousness. The simple act of rehydrating him had brought him back from the periphery of death; death that would have occurred if he had not reached the hospital within three hours.
My prayer is that we in World Vision, and other aid agencies, will have enough medical supplies, specialists and funding to help those in need during this critical time.
World Vision is working with partners and the ministry of health to provide the supplies to treat cholera and stop it spreading. This simple health intervention is saving lives. It is one of the many aid interventions that include food assistance, water provision and sanitation and health interventions, which World Vision is providing.
The humanitarian community is rapidly scaling up its response as the height of the crisis grows. Parts of Somalia are on the brink of famine. The needs are massive. A total of 6.7 million people in Somalia need humanitarian aid and hundreds of thousands of people have fled their dry and dusty villages and barren farms to find food.
Projection of numbers of children who are or will be acutely malnourished has gone up by 50 per cent since the beginning of the year to 1.4 million, including over 376,000 who have or will suffer life-threatening severe acute malnutrition this year. This means without immediate humanitarian assistance a huge percentage of them are hours and days away from dying.
I met a mother whom World Vision was providing high-energy biscuits to. She had walked 30km from Baidoa’s hinterland with her children. She let me hold her five months old daughter. She was so frail and feather light; weighing less than 3 kilogrammes. She didn’t have enough in her to feed her daughter. Mothers are now so hungry that they have no milk to breastfeed their children. Many children never make it or die on the way to this town in southern-central Somalia.
Aid agencies are doing all they can to meet the needs of the people. But we are scratching the surface. So much more needs to be done. There are many remote places that aid has not reached and cannot reach.
Somali people are a tough, entrepreneurial and resilient people who have had to deal with the challenges of conflict, civil war and decades of under-development. Despite these challenges and the current drought, there is much to celebrate. The development programmes is having an impact, governance is improving, the economy has been growing and a younger generation of leaders is helping to strengthen civil society. The international community is committed to supporting Somalia’s efforts to become a functioning nation state.
So it breaks my heart to think that these shoots of growth, change and optimism are now being put at risk by drought and climate change. Starvation kills. Famine in 2011 killed 260,000 people. This must not be allowed to happen again.
Somalia is like someone recovering from a broken leg but now at risk of being crippled by this latest crisis. It takes time for any body to heal and grow. But once healthy, environmental shocks can be faced down.
In the meantime, we need to walk with and support Somalia’s people, funding life-saving aid for a generation of children so they can see that better future.
By Simon Nyabwengi,
Country Director for World Vision,