As of 10am Nairobi time today, the United States Government, along with the UN, is acknowledging the presence of famine in southern Somalia.  This is the first declaration of famine in twenty-odd years, reflecting the fairly high bar for human suffering that has to be crossed before an official declaration can be made.

The declaration is complex.  The full text of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET) statement is here.  But to summarize:

  • a famine is currently ongoing in two areas of southern Somalia: the Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle
  • A humanitarian emergency currently exists across all other regions of the south, and current humanitarian response is inadequate to meet emergency needs. As a result, famine is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming 1‐2 months
  • FEWS-NET estimates 3.7 million people are in crisis nationwide; among these 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving assistance (2.8 million in the south).
  • FEWS-NET projections suggest that assistance needs will remain extremely high through at least December 2011

I think it is important to review what the currently understood conditions on the ground are right now:

  • The crude death rate (simple measure of the number of deaths) has surpassed 2/10,000/day in two areas (Bakool agropastoral, and all of Lower Shabelle).
  • The under 5 death rate has surpassed 4/10,000/day in all areas of the south where data is available, peaking at 20/10,000/day in Riverine areas of Lower Shabelle.  These numbers are horrific.
  • The prevalence of global acute malnutrition (GAM) exceeds 38 percent in 9 of the 11 areas where recent survey data is available – we consider 15% to be an emergency threshold.  Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) exceeds 14 percent in these areas – and the emergency threshold here is 2-4%.

The projections going forward are not pretty.  If, as FEWS-NET projects, we have famine conditions in play across all of Southern Somalia, historical death rates suggest we could be talking about mortality rates somewhere in the range of 2500 deaths a day at some point in August (though this is a high estimate, and a minimum number would be more in line with 700 deaths a day).  I have no idea what percentage of these deaths will be children, but given the extremely elevated under-5 death rates (2X to 10X the global crude death rate), we can assume that the answer is “a hell of a lot.”

The causes of the famine are complex, and FEWS NET reviews them in the link above.

We are trying – and we are all frustrated at how slowly our response is moving.  FEWS-NET’s efforts have been herculean, from data collection (see the picture below) to the organization of reports and data – I am seeing emails from these guys at 3am.  I was impressed with them before I got here.  I am even more impressed with them now.  FEWS is just one part of the equation, though. There are a lot of people who are not sleeping right now, and even more who have dropped everything else they are doing to support this effort. We are trying.

Measuring arm circumference for a nutrition survey in Southern Somalia, July 2011

Please follow developments at FEWS-NET’s site for this emergency here.  There is no better resource on this anywhere.