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Something is wrong with the official definition of famine

By the time aid officials determine that hunger has reached an acute level, it may already be too late.

Maryan Madey, who fled a drought-stricken region of Somalia, held her malnourished 1-year-old daughter, Deka Ali, at a camp for the displaced on the outskirts of Mogadishu on Sept. 3.Farah Abdi Warsameh/Associated Press

MOGADISHU, Somalia —

I saw the effects of a fight against extremists, climate change, and the war in Ukraine all come together when I met Abdi Khadar, who sells camel milk tea, or shah, to customers sitting outside in plastic chairs in the sprawling metropolis of Mogadishu.

Khadar, 48, fled from his hometown of Baidoa in southwestern Somalia last month in search of any source of income to feed the family he left behind in one of the regions hardest hit by the drought that is engulfing the Horn of Africa.

Two of his nine children have already died of starvation.


“I had to escape or lose my entire family to hunger,” he told me. “When I arrived here, I started selling tea to people, and the money I earn, I send to my family — to save them.”

Khadar’s family members are among more than 7.1 million people nearly half of Somalia’s population — in danger of starvation.

The situation is familiar to UN officials and aid workers who have been begging for help. They know that parts of the Horn of Africa are headed toward famine by the end of the year.

“Famine is at the door, and today we are receiving a final warning,” Martin Griffiths, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations, warned on Sept. 5 after a five-day visit to Somalia.

“I have been shocked to my core these past few days by the level of pain and suffering we see so many Somalis enduring,” he added. “In camps for the displaced people, we saw extreme hunger. In the hospital in Baidoa, we had the unenviable privilege of seeing children so malnourished that they could barely speak.”

It’s the second time in a decade that Somalia has been on the brink of famine. According to data from the UN, in 2011 more than 250,000 people here — half of whom were children — died in a famine that followed three consecutive seasons without adequate rainfall.


This time, inflation is putting food out of reach of many who were able to afford it a decade ago. Ukraine and Russia have been the leading exporters of wheat, grains, cooking oil, and fertilizers to Somalia for decades, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted imports of these commodities and crude oil from Russia, leading to rising food, food production, transportation, and fuel costs in this country.

Meanwhile, there is growing anger at the UN for its failure to declare a famine. Analysts and humanitarian groups say that a declaration is the only way to avert more deaths from hunger, because it demands the attention of donor countries and aid agencies.

“There has been the issue of hunger and starvation in Somalia for a very long time, and people don’t take it seriously unless it’s a famine,” says Mayow Mohammed, who has previously worked as an immunization expert with Save the Children International in Somalia and is now an international health consultant. “I believe this is the right time to declare a famine — so that it prompts humanitarian intervention to save the country from famine.”

The UN, in conjunction with national governments, established its definition of famine in 2004, under a system known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC system determines that a famine exists when at least 20 percent of households in a given area face an extreme lack of food, if 30 percent of children in those areas suffer from acute malnutrition, or if each day two adults or four children out of every 10,000 die of starvation.


The United Nations says some parts of Somalia are on track to reach these levels before the end of the year, with 1.5 million children facing acute malnutrition this month. In the meantime, the UN’s World Food Program is trying to feed people who are starving, but officials say they don’t have enough resources to reach everyone.

Internally displaced children wait to receive food aid at a distribution center in El Wak, a town in southern Somalia.Tonny Onyulo

Aid experts say the numbers that the UN analyzes to determine a famine are not always accurate, partly because the conditions that produce famines also make it hard to gather reliable data. In Somalia, the government has been battling the Islamist militant group al-Shabab for years. The militants control large parts of the country, where they run training camps for foreign fighters who attack Mogadishu and even neighboring countries, such as Kenya.

Yusuf Osman, who advises international organizations about the security situation from his base in Mogadishu, says UN officials “have not dared to traverse the whole country to look at the hunger situation because of fear of attack by the militants.”

Meanwhile, aid officials say they have seen this exact situation before. In Somalia’s 2011 famine, the official declaration was made in July, though the UN later estimated it had begun in October 2010 and ended in April 2012.


“This year, we have already lost many people without help from the international community because the situation has not been declared a famine,” says Mohammed, the international health consultant. “The United Nations should not sit and watch as the people of this country die.”

Tonny Onyulo is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @tonnyonyulo.