As our plane makes its final descent into the town of Baidoa in Somalia’s Bay region, I can begin to make out hundreds of displacement camps that have popped up like mushrooms on the outskirts of the town. The country is now well into its third consecutive season of a severe drought that, in the last seven months alone, has forced more than 760,000 people to flee their homes in search of food and water. Most come from areas controlled by Al-Shabaab or other non-state armed groups, places where the government and humanitarian agencies have limited to no access. The town of Baidoa, retaken from Al-Shabaab in 2012 and now marginally under state control, has become the only means of survival for much of the rural population across the country’s drought-stricken, south central region.
The start of the Gu rains in April, which usually last until June, sent some of the displaced back home to rural areas to plant in the hopes of making up for last season’s losses. But the rains were uneven and ended too early. Confronted with another failed harvest and without sufficient food or water, many of the displaced people returned to Baidoa town. They were joined by new waves of displaced families including pastoralists, many from neighboring Bakool region, whose few remaining livestock were wiped out.
In one of the camps, I sit with Halima, a single mother who recently arrived with her seven children from Goofgaduud, approximately 20 miles northwest of Baidoa. “We had camels, cows, and many goats. But there was not enough water or fodder for the animals and many died. Then Al-Shabaab took some of them and slaughtered them to eat. I had only one donkey left. When he died, I came here.”
Many of Baidoa’s new arrivals have come on foot, some walking for over three weeks. Many did not make it. One local aid worker tells me, “It really affects me when I hear some of the stories, how they had to leave their parents – even their own children – on the road when they could go no further. But they had no choice if they were to survive.”
Since November, over 130,000 desperate and hungry people have arrived in Baidoa (more than 13,000 people in the first three weeks of June), doubling the size of the local population and overwhelming the capacity of the fledgling local government and the few humanitarian agencies working here to respond. Having brought nothing than the clothes on their backs with them, they live in some 200 informal camps spread out on the town’s edges in makeshift shelters constructed of sticks, tarps, discarded sacks, and scraps of clothing. If that weren’t enough, Baidoa is already host to tens of thousands of previously displaced people and over 9,500 Somali refugees from Kenya who, no longer welcomed by the Kenyan government, have returned to the area.
We visit one of the new camps where more than 2,000 families who fled the drought live side-by-side in overcrowded conditions. The camp has neither a water source nor latrines, in a context where cholera and other drought-related illnesses are rife. As of late June, close to 24,000 people in Baidoa have fallen ill with or succumbed to water-borne disease – the majority of them children.
Most of the camps lack lighting and other measures to protect woman and girls, and incidents of rape and other forms of gender-based violence among displaced populations are shockingly high. While UN humanitarian agencies agreed back in May to assist the national and local governments to better manage the camps, including ensuring that they are safe, there are few signs of camp management activities taking place on the ground in Baidoa. This is despite the fact that many of the displaced families we meet tell us that even if there was peace back in their home areas they will not go home because there is nothing to return to. “Going back is not a solution,” said one of the recently arrived IDPs.
The newly elected Somali government, the United Nations, and humanitarian agencies deserve credit for raising the alarm of pre-famine conditions back in November and, with the support of donor governments, rapidly pushing out food aid to the worst-affected areas. Their efforts avoided what undoubtedly would have been a massive loss of life and an even larger scale of displacement.
But what cannot be overlooked is the severity of the current drought and the massive collateral damage it has wrought on rural populations here who, entirely dependent on rain-fed agriculture to survive, are chronically malnourished even in a good year. The government and humanitarian agencies must act with greater urgency to scale up the urgent food, water, shelter, and protection needs of the displaced. With the support of donor governments, they must come to terms with the fact that many – if not most – of the displaced will not be returning anytime soon, and at the very least, not until next January when the next harvest comes.
Famine may have been averted -- at least for now. But this is no time for self-congratulations. After all, if the only goal is to avoid people starving to death, the international community is not only setting the bar far too low but also ignoring the longer-term unfolding crisis that is Somalia.