Mother Orey is too malnourished to produce milk for her newborn
Baby Suldhano is only two days old and will not officially be named for another five days in accordance with her parents’ customs. Yet her young life is already blighted by the hunger crisis that has ravaged Somalia and forced over a million people to flee lands left barren by drought.
Her mother, Orey Irshad, 36, is so malnourished her fragile body cannot produce milk for her newborn.
She sits on a thin mattress in their makeshift shelter, cradling tiny Suldhano and spooning sugary water into her parched mouth.
East Africa is in the grip of the worst drought in 40 years which has left millions on the brink of starvation.
The Daily Express joined Save the Children on a visit to Baidoa in south-west Somalia, which has become a hub for desperate families fighting for survival.
Orey and her husband, Nuurow Hassan Mursal, are painfully aware of the dangers of malnutrition after it killed their three-year-old daughter Maryama.
Nuurow, 40, says: “When we came here our child was sick, we took her to the hospital but she could not recover.
“We believe she died as a result of hunger. She was malnourished and we had no food to give her.”
Desperate families are living in makeshift shelters after fleeing their homes to escape starvation
The family lives in a basic shelter in one of scores of camps that have sprung up for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
More than half a million IDPs have flocked to Baidoa and now account for over half its population.
Domed structures – each a patchwork of woven branches and plastic sheets – stretch as far as the eye can see under the baking sun.
Nuurow, Orey, and their five children arrived in August after an exhausting six-day journey in a donkey cart.
They once had a thriving herd of animals and fields of crops. Nuurow says: “We used to rear camels, cattle and goats. We lost everything during the seven-year drought.
“I don’t have money to support my family. My wife is suffering and I cannot feed my child.”
Unable to afford meat or vegetables, they survive on plain rice. At night they are bitten by bed bugs and mosquitos, bringing the threat of malaria.
Nurrow, whose face is pocked and scarred from an illness that left him unable to work, says they have little hope of ever returning home.
These devastating dry spells are intensifying and becoming more frequent due to climate change. The pandemic and rising commodity prices during the war in Ukraine have exacerbated the crisis, leaving roughly half of Somalia’s population facing food insecurity.
As we wander among the closely-packed shelters, every family we meet tells a similar story of a gruelling trek from a home they did not want to leave.
Some also fled violence in areas controlled by terrorist group Al-Shabaab, an affiliate organisation of Al Qaeda.
Political instability following the collapse of the Somali government in 1991 saw the country torn apart by clan-based conflict and left with poor infrastructure that is only now starting to be rebuilt.
Hundreds of thousands of people are living in camps in Baidoa
Elderly couple Issack Hassan Ali, 75, and Nuriye Abdirahman, 50, are caring for six grandchildren aged three to 13 after their parents died.
The orphans lost their father back home and their mother died in childbirth seven months ago, shortly after arriving at the camp.
Her newborn son also died after becoming severely malnourished. Issack recalls: “We could not feed him. We gave him milk powder but his whole body swelled and he died.
“Before the drought, life was good. We used to rear animals and farm.
“This is one of the worst droughts I have ever seen. We looked for a place where we could find humanitarian support to save our lives because we were about to die.”
Conflict, Covid and the war in Ukraine have all exacerbated the crisis
Eight million people in Somalia are thought to be facing food shortages, including 5.1 million children. Over half of youngsters under five are malnourished, including almost half a million feared to be perilously ill.
Estimates suggest as many as 43,000 excess deaths were caused by the drought last year.
Save the Children is providing aid in Baidoa including medical care, malnutrition treatment, and cash and voucher assistance. Humanitarian support is struggling to keep pace with the growing demand for resources – and there is no end in sight to the crisis.
Rain has recently fallen in parts of Somalia but drought has ruined the soil, leaving it unable to absorb water and causing flash flooding.
Said Mohamud Isse, the charity’s national media and communications advisor in Somalia, said: “It’s too little, too late.
“It doesn’t automatically end the crisis. People will need at least three or four good rainy seasons to recover from what they’re now experiencing.”
When witnessing the devastating impact of this crisis, the situation appears dangerously hopeless. There is no quick fix to the climate crisis or easy path for those bearing the brunt to rebuild their lives and many feel despondent.
Said says the search for a solution is “the million dollar question” but one thing is certain – all countries responsible for climate change must help the worst affected nations.
He adds: “Somalia is one of the smallest contributors to the crisis but we are the country paying the highest price. What is happening in Somalia is not just something for Somalis to worry about.
“It is our collective responsibility to respond because many of these people who are facing death have not contributed to climate change.”
Save the Children is calling on G7 leaders to step up the fight against global hunger.
You can find out more or support the charity here.
Is this a famine?
A formal declaration of famine depends on specific thresholds being met, as well as political agreement.
These include that at least a fifth of the population is affected, about one in three children are acutely malnourished, and two in 10,000 people are dying daily.
The United Nations last year warned of a looming famine in Somalia but has not yet officially declared one.
However, experts on the ground in Baidoa say that in some places the thresholds have been reached.
The 2011 famine in Somalia killed 260,000 people – around half of whom died before the formal declaration.
Said Mohamud Isse, of Save the Children, said: “We don’t know whether a famine will be declared, but we do know there are people dying of hunger.
“More than half a million displaced people live in Baidoa, which is more than the total [original] population of the city.
“According to the data, in some places the threshold of famine has already been reached and there have been reports of people dying because they do not have enough to eat or to feed their children.”
Somalia is on the frontline of a global climate catastrophe. With the region facing its fifth failed rainy season, the longest drought in the country’s history has led to livestock deaths, reduced harvests, and staggering levels of displacement.
It’s a harrowing reality that right now, one person is dying every 48 seconds from acute hunger across East Africa.
A report by the Somali Government found that an estimated 43,000 children died in 2022 due to the ongoing drought, which is an unfair and heartbreaking price to pay when the country is one of the least to contribute to the climate emergency facing the world today.
Climate change has increased the frequency and severity of droughts in Somalia, and decades of conflict have eroded its ability to respond to the crisis.
For many Somali children, drought is all they have ever known. Families are facing impossible choices to get by.
We’ve seen people losing their entire livelihoods – their cattle and goats dying from thirst, and mothers walking up to 90km to reach food and medical treatment.
In 2011, a famine claimed the lives of a quarter of a million people in Somalia, half of them children. The tragedy is that this could have been prevented had the international community responded sooner.
We know this is true because in 2017, when another hunger crisis in East Africa threatened to spiral out of control, a determined and early response helped save countless lives.
Next week’s G7 Summit is a critical moment for the UK to keep promises they have made to prevent famine and lead international efforts to avert crises of this scale.
In the immediate term, the UK must start by making an urgent investment of £70 million to help treat an additional one million severely malnourished children. Children need emergency therapeutic feeding to keep them alive and recover their childhoods.
But the reality is that the failure to accelerate progress on addressing the climate crisis and preventing conflict around the world leaves families and those who want to help battling against impossible odds.
Aid can and does save lives. Save the Children’s teams in Somalia are working round the clock to treat children, provide clean water and cash for food. But aid alone will not give children a safe, healthy and green future.
We need political action from the international community, including the UK, to tackle the underlying causes of inequality, conflict and the climate crisis that leave so many people so vulnerable in the first place.
Now more than ever, the time is ticking for many Somali children, and we’re calling on all world leaders to take action and help save lives.
– Said Mohamud Isse is Save the Children Somalia’s national media and communications advisor