Somalia: Samira Abdi anxiously watches her 6-year-old son as a nurse carefully weighs him at the feeding centre of the Melkadida refugee camp in the eastern part of Ethiopia’s Somalia region. Samira took her children there as they had been suffering from stomach pains for weeks. However, he knows very well what is actually tormenting them: hunger.
“They don’t eat because we don’t have enough food,” says Samira. “I noticed they were losing weight, so I came here to ask for help.”
The 28-year-old mother visited the centre a month ago with all five of her children, who were all experiencing the exact same symptoms. Diagnosed with malnutrition, they were immediately put on a treatment program that included special nutritional supplements and other treatments for infections caused by their condition. But only three of her children recovered.
Eleven years ago, conflict forced Samira to flee her home in Southern Somalia. She was one of the first refugees of the Melkadida camp, which today hosts over 41,000 people.
Drought and cuts in food rations mean keeping her children from going hungry is a constant struggle. Last year, the food basket she received monthly from the World Food Program due to her stay in the camp was cut in half due to funding cuts. Without a stable income, she cannot meet the nutritional needs of the children with food that she would buy herself from the local market.
“Earlier, the food we received was enough to see us through to the end of the month. For nine months now, the quantities have decreased, and I am starting to worry,” says Samira.
Her children started getting sick. “All I think about is how I’m going to feed them,” he emphasizes. “They didn’t eat last night. This morning I gave them some porridge. I have nothing else to give them.
As of 2019, the ongoing devastating drought from the lack of rain over the past five years across the Horn of Africa has affected millions of people in the region. Water supplies have dried up, crops and livestock have been wiped out, and people’s ability to support themselves has been degraded. Exacerbating the already difficult situation, food prices have skyrocketed, partly as a result of the war in Ukraine, making food too expensive for most refugees and local communities who cannot afford even the basics.
The inevitable consequence is the rapid increase in malnutrition rates in the region, particularly among children and women, who are usually the most vulnerable populations.
The Somali region of Ethiopia is one of the areas most affected by the drought. In the region where 205,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia, live in eight camps, as well as 650,000 internally displaced people, it is impossible to meet basic needs.
UNHCR nutrition specialist Adane Tefera has seen first-hand the impact the massive food crisis is having on vulnerable families like Samira’s.
“Food costs have increased by 67 percent, according to our latest estimates. Even the price of the most basic type of food, milk, has doubled,” he says. “As most refugees are now unable to buy food from local markets, they are unable to feed themselves adequately, putting them at risk of malnutrition and other serious diseases.”
50-year-old Dahira Mohamed runs a small fruit shop in the central market of the Melkadida camp, but lately, the situation has been difficult as she does not have much work.
“I recently bought half a sack of tomatoes on credit from my neighbour so that I would have something to sell and be able to feed my children,” says Dahira, a mother of five. “I have only managed to sell 30 Ethiopian Birr ($0.60) worth of tomatoes, which is not even enough to buy a packet of cornmeal.”
UNHCR provides assistance in cooperation with local authorities and NGO partners. Providing financial assistance to the most vulnerable refugee families enables them to buy food. Housing items, basic household items and trucked water are also provided, helping both refugees and host communities.
Humanitarian aid is essential, but funding shortfalls have pushed thousands of drought-stricken refugees and their host communities across Ethiopia to the brink of disaster. Last year, UNHCR’s appeal for $42.6 million to provide emergency support to 1.5 million people affected by drought in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia was only half funded.
Although additional funding at the end of the year helped restore food distribution to 80 percent, the lack of it continues to impact many areas, including the provision of nutritional support.
This year, as the crisis worsens, an estimated $46 million is needed to meet the needs of refugees and internally displaced people affected by drought in Ethiopia alone.
“We know that the situation globally at the moment is very difficult and that donors are busy with other urgent needs, but the situation needs immediate attention,” says Adane.
As the drought is expected to continue, more needs to be done to ensure that refugees and local communities can sustainably meet their needs. In addition to providing life-saving assistance, UNHCR supports income-generating activities so that they can meet their own needs and become self-reliant. Through climate-smart agriculture, families will also be supported to adopt ways of producing food adapted to climate change.
For Samira, a little more help might be what she needs to improve her life. “If I had a little support, to start a business for example, I could have an income to buy rice, pasta and sugar for my children.”