Malnourished children are treated on mattresses outside overflowing hospitals as Somalia accelerates towards famine

Hospitals are being overwhelmed by a surge of severely malnourished children in a clear sign that Somalia is hurtling towards a famine that could kill hundreds of thousands, Save the Children said today.

With beds full and wards at breaking point, doctors are being forced to care for children in tents, meeting rooms and even on mattresses outside as drought in East Africa and war in Ukraine drive up food prices, making staples unaffordable for many.

Last month, a Save the Children-run facility in Baidoa, southern Somalia, admitted a record 324 children, nearly three times higher than in the same period last year. The figure for June has already surpassed that, with a week to go before the end of the month.

Tragically, the number of children dying at the centre is also increasing as more and more arrive too racked with malnutrition and other diseases to be saved. Eight children died there during May alone.

Starvation in Somalia is escalating faster than previously feared. Official estimates now show the number of people in catastrophic, famine-like conditions is set to increase more than five-fold, from 38,000 in May to 213,000 in September unless the world wakes up to the scale of the unfolding crisis. Some 386,000 children face severe malnutrition, which is life-threatening without treatment.

The UN has appealed for $1.5 billion to tackle this urgent and deadly crisis but has received just $400 million and aid agencies are urging G7 leaders, who meet next week, to intervene and save lives.

Save the Children’s Country Director for Somalia, Mohamud Mohamed Hassan said:

“Famine is bearing down on Somalia and clinics for malnourished children are close to breaking point. Children are dying now and we’re in a race to stop that from happening.

“People are being overwhelmed by a deadly mix of factors that go far beyond what we saw in 2011, when 250,000 people died. Families in Somalia are at the sharp end of vast global shockwaves. Resilient communities are being overwhelmed.

“The world is sleepwalking towards another catastrophic famine of the sort we promised would never happen again. It’s time to wake up. The response in Somalia is hugely underfunded. The G7 needs to make tackling hunger and malnutrition in Somalia and across East Africa a priority.”

Hunger in Somalia is being fanned by a perfect storm of factors unlike anything seen in a generation. The country is on the front line of climate change and reeling from the ripple effects of war in Ukraine, thousands of miles away.

Four consecutive failed rains have caused the country’s worst drought for 40 years and left millions on the brink of the first famine anywhere in the world for five years. Pastures, crops and livestock across the country have been devastated. Meteorologists warn there is a significant risk of an unprecedented fifth failed rains.

Somalia imports 90% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Sharp price rises driven by the conflict are pushing life-sustaining basics further out of reach. In many parts of the country the cost of staples such as cooking oil and sorghum has doubled in recent months. Diesel is 42% more expensive than at the start of the year.

As the last of people’s animals perish, families are stripped of their livelihood and source of food. Hunger follows. Babies are regularly fed only watery tea or diluted milk powder. Many mothers are eating only one meal of sorghum and weak tea a day.

In these conditions it is the youngest children who are most susceptible to severe malnutrition, which causes blurred vision, muscle wasting, organ failure and even death.

Families across Somalia are refusing to give in even as the odds are stacked ever more cruelly against them. Since the start of the year, more than 500,000 people have left their homes, determined to find the food, water and healthcare that will help them and their children to survive.

Astur’s* four year-old daughter succumbed to malnutrition and measles before she and the rest of her family made the arduous journey to Baidoa, where nine in ten young children face malnutrition this year. Astur said:

“For four years, we have not seen rains. We lost our animals and there’s nothing growing in our farm. We could not bear it any more and that’s why we left for Baidoa to look for support. We used to see dry spells before, but not such severe droughts.”

Astur walked for 90km over two days and nights, while her two malnourished children were carried on a donkey cart. The effort to reach Baidoa may have saved her two-year-old daughter Yasmiin’s* life. The day after they arrived Save the Children’s nutrition teams rushed them from a sprawling camp to an overflowing hospital where every bed has been occupied for weeks. Doctors were forced to care for Yasmiin and Astur under a tree until a bed could be made available, hours later.

Without treatment, Yasmiin would have been unlikely to survive the week, according to Save the Children health staff. Now, she is responding well to treatment. But with numbers continuing to surge, funds are urgently needed to scale up the response.

As leaders of G7 countries meet this month, world leaders must commit to an immediate funding package to help combat this unprecedented global hunger crisis. Save the Children is urging leaders to act now and work together to tackle the root causes of this crisis – investing in a safe climate, fixing the food system and opening up humanitarian access.

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