NAIROBI: The United Nations' humanitarian chief warned on Monday that drought-ravaged Somalia was on the brink of famine for the second time in just over a decade, and time was running out to save lives.
"Famine is at the door and we are receiving a final warning," Martin Griffiths told a media conference in the Somali capital Mogadishu.
A food and nutrition report due for release on Monday has "concrete indications" that famine would strike the regions of Baidoa and Burhakaba in south-central Somalia between October and December, Griffiths said.
"I've been shocked to my core these past few days by the level of pain and suffering we see so many Somalis enduring," said the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who began a visit to the country on Thursday.
"The unprecedented failure of four consecutive rainy seasons, decades of conflict, mass displacement, severe economic issues are pushing many people to... the brink of famine," he added. "We are in the last moment of the 11th hour to save lives."
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Somalia and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia and Kenya, are in the grip of the worst drought in more than 40 years after four failed rainy seasons wiped out livestock and crops.
Humanitarian agencies have been ringing alarm bells for months and say the situation is likely to deteriorate with a fifth failed rainy season probably in the offing.
Griffiths said the situation was worse in Somalia than during the last famine in 2011, when 260,000 people, more than half of them children under age six, died.
The UN's World Food Program (WFP) said last month the number of people at risk of starvation across the Horn had increased to 22 million.
In Somalia alone, the number of people facing crisis hunger levels is 7.8 million, or about half the population, while about a million have fled their homes on a desperate quest for food and water, UN agencies say.
Griffiths described scenes of heartrending suffering during a visit to Baidoa, describing it as the epicenter of the crisis, where he saw "children so malnourished they could barely speak" or cry.
'Beyond breaking point'
Conflict-wracked Somalia is considered one of the most vulnerable to climate change, but is particularly ill-equipped to cope with the crisis.
A deadly insurgency by the radical Islamist Al-Shabaab group for more than a decade and a half against the fragile federal government is limiting humanitarian access to many areas.
A long-running political crisis also diverted attention away from the drought, but new President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud used his inauguration speech in June to appeal for international help to stave off disaster.
In recent years, increasingly extreme droughts and floods have added to the devastation caused by a locust invasion and the coronavirus pandemic.
"Somalia is facing unprecedented levels of drought which have particularly hit rural communities, alongside other impacts like conflict, Covid-19, macroeconomic challenges, and a recent desert locust upsurge," the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization said in a statement last Friday.
People's means to produce food and earn income are "stretched beyond breaking point," it added.
The UN's World Meteorological Organization has said the Horn is likely to face a fifth straight failed rainy season in the fourth quarter.
'Sleepwalking' to catastrophe
At the start of this year, the WFP put the number of people facing hunger across the Horn at 13 million, and appealed for donors to open their wallets.
Funds were initially slow in coming, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, among other crises, drawing attention from the disaster in the Horn, humanitarian workers said.
The war in Ukraine has also sent global food and fuel prices soaring, making aid delivery more expensive.
In June, United Kingdom charity Save the Children had issued an alert that the international community was "sleepwalking toward another catastrophic famine" in Somalia.
OCHA has said the March-to-May 2022 rainy season was the driest on record in the last 70 years, and 2020–2022 had surpassed "the horrific droughts in both 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 in duration and severity."
"An estimated 2.3 million girls and boys are at imminent risk of violence, exploitation, abuse, neglect, and death from severe acute malnutrition as result of food and nutrition crisis across Somalia," it said in August.
In 2017, more than six million people in Somalia — more than half of them children — needed aid because of a prolonged drought across East Africa. But early humanitarian action averted famine that year.