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Families walking kilometres for water in Somalia's worst drought in decades, says Saskatoon aid worker

Tuesday March 14, 2023


As Somalia's worst drought in almost a half century leads to crops failing, livestock dying and children being treated for malnutrition, a Canadian Red Cross worker in the region says water management is front of mind.

About 96,000 people have been facing "catastrophic hunger" in Somalia from January to March and it's estimated about 1.8 million children will be acutely malnourished in the region this year, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Angela Hill, a Saskatoon resident working as a communications aid worker with the Canadian Red Cross in Somalia, said the region has seen about five failed rainy seasons over about two-and-a-half years.

"We are seeing families, women, who are having to travel maybe two or three kilometres, walking, to get water to have the ability to cook what food they have," Hill told Leisha Grebinski, host of CBC's Saskatoon Morning.

The Canadian Red Cross is assisting those affected by the drought, which is affecting the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda.

People in the region are nomadic and raise livestock, Hill said, meaning the rain provides pasture and water for their animals. Without it, their livelihoods are dropping dead.

Hill said she spoke with women who said their biggest concern is water access.

"As soon as they have a little bit of rainfall the green comes back, the dust goes away, the animals are able to eat," Hill said, noting that when animals are healthy they can produce milk and other commodities that can be sold or consumed.

Berkads — deep, concrete reservoirs that are a source of water for the community — are drying up in some communities.

People are having to travel farther for access to that water.

The drought in Somalia has been emotionally and financially draining for Saskatoon's Somali community, said Ali Abukar, who has been in touch with his family and friends in Somalia.

Abukar said with inflation in Canada, sending support to people in Somalia has been more difficult.

"People will double think about spending money on things that are not necessary … they're being reminded constantly 'OK, there are people dying back home,'" Abukar told Grebinski, including leisure and eating at restaurants.

"The Somali people and the people in the region, they're very strong people, very resilient and people who are rooted in faith."

Fighting in the Sool region, in Somalia's northwest, has also hampered transportation, leading to risen commodity prices. 

Nearly 214,000 people in the region — or 43 per cent of the region's population — are experiencing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity.

In September, the UN said more than 513,000 children were at risk of dying because of catastrophic hunger levels, 173,000 more than during the 2011 famine that killed a quarter of a million people — half of them children.

The United Nations estimates there were 16.8 million people in Somalia in 2022, with 46 per cent of them under 14 years old. It also said the number of people needing food assistance went from two million per month in early 2022 to 5.4 million by the end of the year.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network anticipates a sixth failed rain season in 2023 to extend the drought and said that while the region will likely avert famine, according to the necessary criteria, some regions will be at risk into the summer months. 

Hill said the Somali Red Crescent Society is helping through emergency financial assistance to help people pay for food, medicine, transportation to health facilities or other needs.

Health centres, also run by the society, can screen for malnutrition and supply high-energy packets to supplement meals.

The society is also looking into the future to develop "climate change resiliency," according to Hill, including making water catchment areas and placing roofs on berkads to prevent evaporation.


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