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Somalia faces a food insecurity crisis because of extreme drought

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Food has become more expensive all over the world. In East Africa, that's led to extreme hunger. Nearly half of Somalia's population faces acute food insecurity. That's more than 7 million people, 1 1/2 million of them children, according to the World Food Programme.

Rania Dagash-Kamara is UNICEF's deputy regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, and she's with us from Nairobi. Thanks for being here.

RANIA DAGASH-KAMARA: Thank you, Ari. And thank you for the opportunity.

SHAPIRO: When you visit Somalia, what does this crisis look like?

DAGASH-KAMARA: It looks different to most crises that I've seen in the last 22 years in the region. It is the frontlines of climate change. It is five failed rain seasons, which we've never seen in this part of the world - and a potential sixth one, actually, likely to fail. So people have lost millions of livestock. They've lost all their crop. They have lost all their assets, basically. And they're on the move looking for assistance to survive.

And if I could zoom out a little bit, Ari, in the Horn of Africa, in total, the numbers have been escalating. We're at close to 15 million children affected at this point, and that's over 30 million people.

SHAPIRO: Are there people you've met in your visits to Somalia who you can tell us about, people you remember who put some individuality on this massive tragedy?

DAGASH-KAMARA: There is a mother that I met who was pregnant, and she also had 1-year-old twin boys, one sitting on her lap, one trying to breastfeed. They had walked 120 kilometers to get to our assistance. And they did. They were lucky. The child on her breast was crying because there was nothing coming out of her breast. And he was trying so desperately. The other one was totally lethargic and unable to move. His stare was blank. And that was one of the saddest things. She herself was malnourished, and her children were malnourished. And she was pregnant.

And many mothers we spoke to had the same story. She didn't lose any children, but many others lost kids on the way. So it's been a very difficult drought, a very difficult crisis and one that I honestly struggle with. And I struggled with it as a mother. I struggled with it as an aid worker. I struggled with it as just a woman from the Horn of Africa. I struggled with it at so many levels and still am.

SHAPIRO: The militant group al-Shabab holds a lot of territory in Somalia. Is that a challenge to distributing food aid to the people who need it most?

DAGASH-KAMARA: It is, and it isn't. It is in that the areas that al-Shabab control are difficult to access. But different to many contexts and droughts that we'd seen before, people have been coming out of the Shabab areas and seeking assistance in nearby towns, which tells you that the situation is extremely dire inside the locations controlled by al-Shabab. And so we are seeing a pull factor by the assistance that we're setting up in the towns to reach more people. And I think the larger numbers are actually outside the Shabab areas, and that's where the bulk of our support is targeted to and the bulk of our presence is.

SHAPIRO: What role does the war in Ukraine play in this situation?

DAGASH-KAMARA: It plays many roles in this crisis. It took away visibility that we would have probably gotten a lot stronger in February and the months that followed and ensued. It took away resources that we would have gotten to the Horn of Africa drought and affected children much earlier. And we've seen even some of our key donors redirecting their assistance that they would have extended to us to respond to the Ukraine crisis in their own countries. We've never seen that before. And it increased the food and fuel prices in a way that even those in Somalia and in other countries could have buffered and helped their communities, but when they can't feed themselves, they can't extend to feed others or to support others. So the war in Ukraine has been a multifaceted disaster on a disaster already.

SHAPIRO: With year after year of failed rainy seasons, is there any hope that things will turn around?

DAGASH-KAMARA: Oh, absolutely, Ari. Our data is being analyzed at the moment, and we do know that there's a slight improvement in Somalia. We know that the crisis continues to outpace our ability to respond. It is dire. It is like nothing we've seen before. But our presence is making a difference. The communities and the local partners that are working are making a difference, and they're saving children every day.

SHAPIRO: Rania Dagash-Kamara is UNICEF's deputy regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa. Thank you for talking with us.

DAGASH-KAMARA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.