It is very unusual for a Somali man to queue for food at a soup kitchen, but when I visited the Hodan hot food kitchen in Mogadishu earlier this week, I met Yousef, an elderly man lining up amidst women and children.
Yousef had walked with his wife and five kids, from Bakool to Baidoa hoping to get assistance but found none there. His wife died in Baidoa as a result of starvation related illnesses. Yousef made it to Mogadishu on foot. The soup kitchen is his only source of food.
A woman, also waiting to receive food, shared a similar story. She knew that due to the fighting, the city was not safe, but she chose to risk her life anyways rather than die of starvation.
The UN agency for refugees says that 100,000 people entered Mogadishu in July mainly from Shabelle, Bay and Bakool, the famine hit regions. Those who can afford it escape to Dobley or to the Dadaab camps in Kenya, the ones with lesser means escape to Dolo Ado in Ethiopia, the most desperate ones walk to Mogadishu; but the very weak and destitute families remain in the famine ravaged zones waiting for assistance.
Somalia is in the grip of a severe drought and famine, but why is it affecting the 'food basket' of the country and not the arid northern regions?
Conflict is a huge factor in this famine. In February of this year, fighting took place in the border towns thus disrupting the flow of goods into the country, while cattle from southern regions could not cross into the Kenyan markets. To make matters worse, Al Shabaab denied there was food scarcity in the regions they controlled. They also restricted people from leaving until the situation turned even more critical.
The European Commission has allocated €62 million in response to the famine in Somalia. It is not easy to ensure aid effectiveness in this complex emergency. A mixture of relief food, food vouchers, and cash transfers must be used in order to strike a balance.
If we give people dry food, they will require water and firewood to prepare it; moreover, they need a safe area to cook. In some of the camps, the huts are so small that cooking can potentially set the whole camp on fire.
Again, food distribution centres are not necessarily accessible to the most vulnerable families. Where food is available but too costly, food vouchers are a better option. These may however cause local inflation, and militias might target the traders for 'taxation'.
Cash is a quick way of meeting people's needs, but this is also subject to illegal taxation and besides, families may decide to use the money to flee into refugee camps across the border instead of purchasing food.
The militias are not the only ones who are after a portion of the aid.
Displaced families living on private land usually pay a charge of about 2 Euros and almost 5 Euros in places like Garowe. When they receive relief food, they give part of it to the 'camp owner' as a down payment.
With the €62 million, the Commission is addressing the immediate needs and also supporting livelihoods programmes. There is a need to act extremely fast and save lives, but we must also restore livelihoods. The Commission is investing in food assistance, water and sanitation, primary and secondary healthcare, and is monitoring epidemics.
Through partner agencies, the Commission is providing seeds and farm tools, and irrigation pumps for communities living along the river Juba. Funds will also be used to vaccinate the remaining livestock in anticipation of the end of year rains.
Working in Somalia is difficult but not impossible. The European Commission Humanitarian Aid has 12 international partners that reach 1.5 million people with food, cash and livelihoods support. The solution in Somalia is dependent on stemming the conflict, but until this happens, we must continue to provide relief to those who are trapped in this war. This is a reality that we cannot escape.
Philippe Royan, Head of Somalia office, European Commission Humanitarian Aid