Yves Van Loo, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), visits Somalia regularly. He was in Mogadishu two weeks ago, and describes what life is like for people struggling to cope with drought, famine and conflict.

In the last few months we’ve seen the situation deteriorating. The ICRC supports 18 nutritional centres for children in Somalia, which are run by the Somali Red Crescent. We had almost twice as many children admitted to the nutritional centres in June as in March. In March we had 3,000 and in June it was around 5,500.

The malnutrition rate is twice the alarm level. The situation is very bad; it’s a huge effort to feed the population.

Somalia knows about drought and people normally know how to deal with the situation. But because the security situation is getting worse in some areas, and this is a particularly bad drought, people are struggling to cope.

This is the worst situation: the drought is happening at the same time all around the country, so that prevents people moving to a safer place. They really have to make long journeys to find a safer place.

Why has the situation got so bad?

There are many factors. First is drought. The country has missed two rainy seasons. There’s little irrigation in the country and people are weakened from the previous drought, which they hadn’t recovered from.

Then there’s still a war going on and too few organisations present to help people.

The agricultural sector in Somalia has been undergoing a process of loss of productivity over the last 20 years. Large-scale farms were wiped out during the civil war at the beginning of the 90s and only small-scale farming is currently practised. Those farmers lack knowledge of modern agricultural techniques, and the small size of the business does not allow efficient economy of scale. Agricultural development in Somalia has been moving backwards to subsistence agriculture.

Seeds distributed by the ICRC in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia after floods in 2007

© Pedram Yazdi (ICRC)

How does the conflict affect people’s ability to get food?

When you have a war, people and resources can’t move around the country very easily. Tools and seeds are not easy to get. People have difficulty accessing resources.

Many people in Somalia have no choice but to move to Mogadishu to find resources, but Mogadishu has shootings all the time. So people leave one place of danger to go to another place where they face more danger.

Some are still running businesses in Mogadishu during the day but, because there’s night fighting, they leave the city at night to get some rest. Some go home if there’s no fighting for two days because they think it’s over.

The intensity of the fighting has decreased in Mogadishu in the last month, but it’s still insecure. You sometimes have roadside bombings and suicide bombings, which affect people’s ability to move around and get the resources they need – like farming supplies, access to water, or even shelter.

What are the ICRC and Somali Red Crescent doing to help with the food and water crisis in Somalia?

The ICRC is supporting a huge network of therapeutic feeding centres operated by our partner, the Somali Red Crescent. In the last three months, the number of children admitted has nearly doubled.

We are opening more feeding programmes. We were feeding malnourished children under five and now we’ve extended that to pregnant and lactating women. When people are malnourished, they need to be assisted through a combination of specialised medical and nutritional care. We give them Plumpy’nut and porridge to give them protein.

The people who are admitted stay in the facility until they’re cured.

After the failure of the rainy season last autumn, the ICRC launched a major water-trucking operation. Between January and April, up to 350,000 people benefited from that operation. We also completed fourteen major water infrastructure projects during that time, and we’ve given cash and tools to communities to upgrade rainwater catchments.

What’s the Red Cross doing to help people long term so they don’t have to depend on food aid?

Men plant seeds distributed by the ICRC in their long-term agricultural programme

© Pedram Yazdi (ICRC)

For the last 20 years, the ICRC has constantly had a presence in Somalia.

We have been helping farmers be more sustainable and improve their crops by giving them seeds and agricultural resources (like ploughs and fertilisers) and training.

We have water specialists to improve boreholes, which can help people survive drought. Since the current crisis started, we still run those activities but we also have emergency support like feeding centres.

Find out more about the ICRC’s work in Somalia

Donate to the Red Cross’ East Africa Food Crisis Appeal