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Somalia: striving to reach the people most in need

04-08-2011 Interview

Andrea Heath is in charge of the ICRC's economic-security activities in Somalia. As the humanitarian crisis worsens, she explains what the ICRC is doing to bring relief to the country's people.

Can you describe the current humanitarian situation in Somalia?

People in southern and central Somalia have been plagued by armed confrontation, drought and other environmental problems, and the lack of social and health-care services for 20 years now. This makes it especially difficult for them to cope with the severe drought that has made matters even worse. The gu rainy season, which normally starts in early April, was late this year and the rains were sporadic. Because many farmers and livestock herders had already been reeling from the lack of rainfall and the subsequent crop failure in the last deyr rainy season, from September to November, they are now facing a desperate struggle to survive. The vast majority of riverine communities in the Juba, Gedo and Shabelle regions had a lower than average harvest due to the late rainfall and difficulties cultivating staple crops. In addition, there has been a steady influx into areas along rivers of livestock herders searching for new pasture and of people displaced by the conflict. The scarcity of food has fueled inflation in local markets, where the price of certain items has more than tripled in the last three months. The price of rice has actually quadrupled! The fact that so few aid agencies have been able to work in southern Somalia has meant that many people who are unable to cope with the current situation have received no help at all.

The ICRC supports a network of 39 clinics and 18 therapeutic feeding centres operated by the Somali Red Crescent Society. The data they collect every month show that rates of acute malnutrition in children under the age of five have risen above annual seasonal trends in the last two months and are now at crisis levels. Admissions in the feeding centres doubled between March and June, and there are now more than 5,000 children being treated in the centres. In Bay, 11 per cent of children under five years are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition. In Bakool, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of children treated at the mother and child health-care centres, with the rate of severe acute malnutrition rising from 16 to over 30 per cent between March and May.

What is the ICRC doing in response to the current crisis?

The ICRC is scaling up its operation to assist an additional 1.1 million drought- and conflict-affected people. It has just asked donors for some 86 million US dollars in additional funding.

In close cooperation with the Somali Red Crescent, the ICRC is expanding services in existing health-care facilities and outpatient therapeutic feeding centres. Ten new centres will be opened in Bakool, Gedo and the Afgoye corridor. Additional mobile teams will visit people in the most affected areas to offer nutritional assistance to severely malnourished children. In addition, the ICRC is distributing high-energy biscuits to breast-feeding and pregnant women, who are vulnerable to malnutrition. A new feeding programme supplementing the regular therapeutic feeding is being launched for moderately malnourished children and breast-feeding and pregnant women. Some 49,000 malnourished children and 24,000 women will benefit from the supplementary and the therapeutic feeding programmes.

This week, the ICRC completed a first round of food distributions that covers the needs of 162,000 people in central and southern Somalia for the coming month.

Besides this emergency response, the ICRC is also providing sustainable aid that will ultimately enable people to meet their needs on their own.

Most farmers in Somalia depend on rainfall to water their crops. Irrigation is possible only along the rivers, and modern agricultural techniques are not widely known. For many years, the ICRC has been striving to help Somali agriculture to stand on its own feet again. Last year, an estimated 23,000 metric tonnes of grain was produced in Somalia with ICRC support – an amount that corresponds to 5.2 per cent of the country's current shortfall in grain production. Although that is a huge achievement, the ICRC continues to emphasize long-term development. Our priority is to enable the Somali farmer to earn a living without outside help.

Do people have enough water?

Over the past few months, surface water has evaporated and rainwater catchments have dried up. Water can still be drawn from deep boreholes. But since boreholes are the only source of water, they are used intensively and therefore require frequent maintenance and repairs. And with the few remaining livestock crowding around the boreholes, there are additional sanitation concerns.

Earlier in the year, the ICRC delivered water by truck to 350,000 people. We also maintain existing boreholes or drill new ones whenever possible, since this is the best response to the drought.

What are the main problems encountered when delivering aid?

Bringing aid to hundreds of thousands of people is a huge logistical challenge. Supplies have to come from far away and we have to make sure they reach the people most in need. In addition, the distribution sites have to be as close as possible to those receiving the aid so as not to trigger big population movements.

In view of the fact that everybody is affected by the current situation, determining who needs aid most, and establishing the right criteria for doing so, is clearly a major challenge.


Baidoa IDP camp. An ICRC field officer prepares for the food distribution. 

Baidoa IDP camp. An ICRC field officer prepares for the food distribution.

An ICRC and SRCS monitoring team discuss how the distribution will proceed with the families. 

An ICRC and SRCS monitoring team discuss how the distribution will proceed with the families.

Ufurow, Somalia. Families in need wait for food to be distributed. 

Ufurow, Somalia. Families in need wait for food to be distributed.