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Russia's invasion of Ukraine has pushed Somalia towards famine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia are facing famine. Binyam Gebru works with Save the Children in Somalia. He says organizations like his need one thing to help Somalis on the brink of starvation.

BINYAM GEBRU: We need money because currently, the markets are working. There is still food, which is expensive, but the markets are working. So we need a lot of resources. The U.N. has made an appeal of 1.5 billion to avert famine. That's the initial estimate. With the current increase in number of people affected by drought, we are likely to need more.

MARTIN: You heard Gebru say the free market in Somalia is working. That means, though, that the cost of food is rising and more people go hungry. Hunger in Somalia has more than one cause, of course - droughts that last longer and happen more frequently, and Russia's war in Ukraine, which cut Somalia off from one of its main international food sources. Gebru's appeals for more resources haven't yet worked.

GEBRU: I think partly there is a donor fatigue.

MARTIN: With so much attention on devastation elsewhere in the world, he says Somalia's crisis just hasn't been at the top of donors' minds. Gebru told our co-host Leila Fadel the country doesn't even have enough hospital beds to care for its malnourished children.

GEBRU: Health facilities require support because they're at their breaking point in many places. You know, children who are severe malnutrition, they get admitted in existing beds, and then most of the beds are already full. Children are admitted, you know, under sheds, open spaces, even offices are used for treatment of children with severe acute malnutrition.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

So there's no space for kids who are malnourished in the hospitals anymore.

GEBRU: Absolutely. Absolutely. The caseload is way higher than what the existing facilities can hold.

FADEL: What specifically are families dealing with, choices people are having to make when they're faced with a lack of food, a lack of water?

GEBRU: People in places in the south, they sell off their available cattles to feed the children. And these are normally the source of milk for children. And unfortunately, in those severely affected regions, most families have lost their cattles. Somalia overall has lost 300 million cattles, which is way higher than other neighboring countries - out of the 7 million, which the region has lost. These are a source of food, a source of livelihood. So they can't even have their cattles to be sold.

FADEL: So they're having to make a choice between their long-term livelihood with the cattle and selling them off to immediately feed their families.

GEBRU: Absolutely. On top of that, people have to travel up to three days, you know, with children to areas which are not occupied by extreme organization which has occupied, you know, a large swath of territory in the south and central region, which is mainly affected by the drought. So parents have to travel with the kids for four to three days to reach where, you know, support is provided. And along the way, they lose children from dehydration, starvation.

FADEL: How has it gotten this bad? Would you draw a connection to climate change, to Russia's war in Ukraine and the famine in Somalia?

GEBRU: Somalia used to experience droughts every five to six years in the past. Now it has become every three years. It has become more substantive, and it becomes also very severe. Ukraine has taken, you know, the attention of the international donor community almost totally. And the crisis in Somalia, as well as in the Horn, has been neglected. And, yeah, climate is, of course, the main culprit. And then Somalia - its contribution to global warming or carbon emission is insignificant, but the brunt is borne by the country, particularly the women, children of Somalia.

So the drought is a cause of the climate crisis, which Somalia is not necessarily contributing to. I think Western countries, which contribute significantly to that, should have a responsibility to support and, you know, bail Somalia out. Now Ukraine has come - the additional layer of the situation, making the situation worse because food crisis has increased. Somalia depends on its, you know, wheat import on Russia and Ukraine - up to 95%. The war in Ukraine has contributed to the current crisis directly and also indirectly.

FADEL: So what could the U.S. do if the Biden administration wanted to help alleviate some of this suffering?

GEBRU: Yeah, I think they should pay equal attention to the crisis in the Horn. Here, we are looking at - in a country which is heading toward a famine situation and hundreds of thousands of people are likely to die from starvation in front of our eyes, where you can really do something now and - but it's a - I think the U.S. should make Somalia a priority - you know? - the same as probably Ukraine. Because in terms of human deaths and casualties, where - is much bigger number we are looking at here.

Children who do not contribute to any of this are the ones suffering most, and they are dying in front of our eyes. You know, we - in our health facilities where we treat children with severe acute malnutrition, we lost eight children in one month alone. And admission rate has tripled, you know, compared to the same time last year. And then these children, if they don't get treatment, they will die. Time is running out, but we can still really - with a concerted effort and enough resources, we can save lives.

FADEL: Binyam Gebru is with Save the Children in Somalia. Thank you so much for your time.

GEBRU: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.