NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Somalia risks sliding towards a catastrophic hunger crisis similar to the 2011 famine with some 50,000 children already at "death's door", 22 aid agencies warned on Wednesday.
Hunger and malnutrition are worsening in the Horn of Africa country due to two failed rainy seasons and renewed conflict, they said. Life-saving aid projects are being shut down due to funding shortages.
Crops have wilted in the fields, herders are slaughtering new-born calves to give their mothers a better chance of survival, and 74,000 people have been freshly displaced by recent fighting, the agencies said.
"We are all very worried," said Geno Teofilo, Oxfam’s spokesman for Somalia. "The world is failing Somalia again. The crisis there could become a catastrophe. The situation now is similar now to 2011 in many respects."
The famine was caused by several consecutive failed rains, conflict and a ban on agencies delivering food aid in territory held by the Islamist militant group al Shabaab. It ended in February 2012 thanks to better rains and increased humanitarian assistance.
Somalia has been in crisis for 23 years, unable to break free from civil war and recurrent drought.
Some 2.9 million people – around one-third of Somalia’s population – need aid. Numbers have been rising since the short season of 'deyr' rains failed in November.
Experts now fear the long season 'gu' rains, which were supposed to start in mid-March, are going to fail.
"We are seeing a lot of alarms," said Bashir Mohamed Hashi, programme director of Wajir South Development Association (WASDA), an aid agency operating in southern Somalia.
"Farmers who have planted for the gu season, which is very critical for the south ... the major bread basket of the country, most of their crops have wilted," he told a news conference in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
"We have seen pastoralists slaughtering the small cows which have just been born to save the big ones."
If the mother no longer has to suckle her calf, she is more likely to survive the drought.
Some farmers began replanting after rain fell along the River Juba and Shabelle area last week. But they need sustained rains to produce a harvest.
"The month of May remains critical during which, if rains fail, combined with sustained insecurity, we might see new levels of crisis unfold especially in southern parts of Somalia and the mainly pastoral northeast," Daniel Molla, chief technical advisor of the U.N.'s Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) for Somalia, said in a statement on April 2.
At the peak of the famine, 4 million Somalis needed aid.
Malnutrition is increasing, FSNAU said, and families are using their savings and selling off their assets to buy food.
"We have 50,000 children who are suffering from severe malnutrition. That means they are at death's door," Oxfam’s campaigns and policy manager Ed Pomfret told the news conference.
During the famine, 200,000 children were severely malnourished, which means they die without therapeutic feeding.
"People (are) basically monetising everything they have got in order to eat," said Andrew Lanyon, chief of party for a coalition called the Somalia Resilience Program. "And in some cases we are actually seeing many families still not being able to eat."
Food prices are rising as demand outpaces supply. In the last month, the price of rice, wheat flour, sugar and vegetable oil rose by 40 to 50 percent in Bakool region, according to FSNAU.
"There will reach a point in time when the price of food will escalate markedly, as it did in 2011, because the demand for that food will grow," said Lanyon.
The most vulnerable are some 1.1 million people internally displaced by drought and war.
A recent offensive by African Union and Somali government forces to capture new territory from al Shabaab has displaced 74,000 people, Ibrahim Ali Hussein, country director for the aid agency Adeso said.
Since 2011, al Shabaab has been pushed out of bigger cities and towns but it still controls rural areas and smaller urban centres from where it launches al Qaeda-inspired suicide attacks.
Funding is scarce, with crises such as South Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria also demanding donors' attention.
The U.N.’s humanitarian appeal for Somalia in 2014 is only 12 percent funded.
In December, WASDA stopped providing water to 9,000 households in the border town of Dobley as money ran out. The town is home to a large displaced population, with many people crossing in and out of neighbouring Kenya.
"Lack of access to clean water and sanitation is a ticking time bomb," said Pomfret. "You see people suffering from cholera, from acute watery diarrhoea which is a life threatening ailment. These are things that can tip people over the edge."
The agencies called for hungry people to be given cash transfers, water, healthcare and nutritional support.
"What's required is a safety net so that we can, as a group of NGOs, support communities to keep themselves alive," said Lanyon.
It costs anywhere between three to six times as much to respond to a crisis as it does to prevent it, he added.
"We have an early warning which effectively has the ingredients of a perfect storm for a humanitarian crisis," said Lanyon. "What we need now is to move from early warning into early action."