East Africa crisis: It is now about saving human lives

Andres Gomez de la Torre
People awaiting emergency assistance at a temporary camp in Somaliland

Somalis are facing a severe drought. And not just any drought, but an unprecedented third consecutive cycle of failed rains, which could soon lead Somalis and some of their neighbours in East Africa to a famine-like scenario. Let's put things in perspective: lack of rain is a problem in many parts of the world, but three consecutive years with poor rain for people whose livelihoods are highly dependent on it means that the situation could not be more critical.

We spend our first seven hours in Somaliland driving north-east from the capital, Hargeisa. The scenario could not be more worrying. We crossed more than a dozen totally dry rivers; we saw small groups of children searching for water or food for their livestock, which clearly they would not find; and we passed a large number of abandoned water points.

Boy with donkey in Somaliland

When we reached the first community in north-east Somaliland, we were welcomed by the local leaders and a large group of women and very young children. They were very keen to share with us their experience and wanted us to share with the world what is happening here.

I met a young mother who had just arrived after spending two days and two nights travelling by foot with her six children. After such a long journey, she still had no time to rest as she was building a very basic shelter to be able to offer her youngest children a safe place to spend the night. She was not sure where her husband was. He had gone with their remaining 10 goats looking for water. They have not heard from him in two months.

A man approached our group as he wanted to share with us that this has never happened before. “I have lived a long life, and we have always overcome our problems, helping each other,” he said.

This time is different; the problem is everywhere. I have gone to three towns looking for food and water for my family and could not find any.

He added: “This community is helping us; but they can hardly sustain themselves. We will need to move again.”

Don’t get me wrong. These people were not just waiting for the situation to get worse and for help to come from anywhere. With support from local organisations and CARE, they have been preparing to face a tough battle. They have worked hard to build or rehabilitate water points; they walked days and nights to sell their livestock in local and border markets; they have saved as much cash as they could for the difficult times to come; they have tried to remain together and when possible, support their children to attend school.

However, it is clear that on this occasion, this strong community can’t win this battle on their own. The question we all need to ask ourselves is: who could?

Dead sheep in Somaliland

CARE’s long-term presence, working in partnership with local organisations in this part of the world, contributed to the recovery following the 2011 drought that affected the country. Support provided to the formation and consolidation of women-led savings and loan groups is now paying off as it has made a great contribution to strengthen communities’ coping mechanisms. But we now need to scale up our support and fast. As one of the people we met said to us:

It is too late to save our livestock, but it is now about saving human lives.

In the last community we visited, a 12-year old boy wanted to have a chat. He told me he stopped going to school three months ago, as the one in his town has closed down. He said:

We decided to leave and walked with my mum and four brothers and sisters for three days. Here there is a school, but my priority is finding food and water for my family.

He wanted me to pass on the message that they are doing all that they can, “but this time it is not enough”.

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Andres Gomez de la Torre's picture

Andres Gomez de la Torre is Programme and Policy Director for CARE International UK.