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Somalia faces what could be its worst drought in 40 years

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Somalia is experiencing its worst drought in decades. The U.N. warns that in the coming months, nearly half the country could be in a critical food crisis, with famine conditions in parts of Somalia. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Mogadishu. And, Jason, tell us about what you've seen. How bad is the food situation right now?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The food situation is pretty bad here. Technically, under the U.N's guidance and the way that they categorize different types of food crises, it has not yet reached a famine state. But there are a lot of people without food. There are millions of people without food. And the concern is what's going to happen in the coming year. Already, Somalia has had four rainy seasons in a row that have failed. And aid groups are really worried about what's going to happen if the rainfall levels don't increase at some point this coming year in 2023.

You know, recently they've had hundreds of thousands of people whose crops have failed, whose livestock have died. And these people have left their rural homes, and they've moved to these IDP camps, these internally displaced persons camps around Mogadishu, around other cities in larger towns because these are the only places that they can currently get access to international food supplies from aid groups. And we are seeing children who are severely malnourished right now, even though they are not yet at this, you know, so-called famine state. And we are seeing some kids who are dying due to this crisis.

SHAPIRO: I know you've been out to meet some of them. Let's listen to your reporting.

BEAUBIEN: At the Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu, 2-year-old Deeqle Ibrahim has gotten so weak from malnutrition that he no longer even has the strength to swallow. His shoulders and rib cage protrude against his skin. His eyes are sunk deep into their sockets.

MOHAMED YASIN HIREY: From long starvation, he lost his muscles, his fats. So he cannot swallow properly.

BEAUBIEN: That's Dr. Mohamed Yasin Hirey, one of the physicians on the malnutrition intensive care unit at the hospital.

HIREY: His age is 2 years old, and his weight is 5.4.

BEAUBIEN: Five-point-four kilograms or just under 12 pounds. Dr. Hirey says Deeqle should weigh at least twice that amount. His mother, Meral, sits beside him on the bed and fans her son with her shawl. Meral says Deeqle came down with diarrhea nearly a month ago and then progressively grew thinner and thinner. Finally, she made the 60-mile journey from her village to the capital, Mogadishu, she says, to seek help. Dr. Hirey says more and more cases like Deeqle are showing up at this hospital.

HIREY: For the last six months, the situation has been - dramatically increased the cases. Were - we admitted more cases now. But this year, the cases has been increased.

BEAUBIEN: So long as the children don't have other complications - like, for instance, cholera or measles - Dr. Hirey says the malnourished kids respond well to treatment. In addition to the inpatient ICU beds at Banadir Hospital, many more children are treated at an outpatient nutrition clinic. The clinic provides children with a high calorie, peanut paste supplement called Plumpy'Nut, which can help them regain weight quickly. As families struggle to afford food, they often feed their children less or give them meals that are little more than a watery stew.

VICTOR CHINYAMA: The drought in Somalia immediately means that there's a scarcity of food at the household level.

BEAUBIEN: Victor Chinyama, a spokesperson for UNICEF in Mogadishu, says the ongoing drought in Somalia has led to severe shortages of food across the country, and it's expected to get worse in the coming months.

CHINYAMA: In fact, at the moment, we are looking at maybe 1.8 million children suffering from acute malnutrition, and about half a million of these are in danger of dying because they have a more severe form of malnutrition called wasting.

BEAUBIEN: Adding to the food crisis in Somalia, the Islamist militant group al-Shabab is blocking international relief efforts in areas it controls. The recent crop failures, combined with battles between the government and al-Shabab, have forced hundreds of thousands of Somalis to seek food and basic shelter in internally displaced persons camps. Chinyama says Somalia also appears to be getting battered by climate change, which is making these droughts more frequent. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Mogadishu, Somalia.

SHAPIRO: And we'll have more of Jason's reporting from Somalia later this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.