Poor Security: A Key Reason for Drought Disaster

When we set out to visit the community of Dhobley, Somalia, it came after a security assessment from several people, and the knowledge that whatever the security may tell us, it’s still a dangerous place to go.

The militant group Al Shabaab, which has ties with Al Qaeda, was pushed farther back into Somalia a few months ago, helping Dhobley maintain some order. Security forces from Kenya and Somalia’s transitional government continue to make gains and reclaim territory.  Still, news reports I’ve read indicate that Al Shabaab fighters are not very far outside of the community. And it’s clear that Al Shabaab is not far from the minds of the refugees.

Somali TFG soldiers
Members of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces.

When I talk with families fleeing the famine, I hear one thing again and again. It’s not just hunger that has driven families to leave. It’s the lawlessness that has flourished in the failed state of Somalia. I’ve heard horror stories of the innocent being victimized by evil men in unspeakable ways.

Even if these families had moderate success with their businesses or farming in Somalia, nearly all did it while living in fear. With the painful backdrop of poor security, the famine was the inescapable problem that pushed them over the edge, sending them on an uncertain journey for food and water. In order to affect long-term change, security must improve.

Heading to the nearly unmarked border

On a day we traveled to Somalia to work, we left World Concern’s base for famine response in Dadaab, Kenya. This town is home to the rapidly-growing complex of refugee camps you’ve seen on the news, as well as a large UN compound. It takes about two hours to drive from Dadaab to Dhobley, just across the Somalia border. Like other agencies, we have elected to have a security detail join us on the road.

The road to Somalia has no signs, just tire tracks in deep sand on a twisting road through scrub brush. Before reaching the border, we had to stop in the Kenyan border town of Liboi on our way to Dhobley, to get our passports stamped, knowing that there was no similar immigration checkpoint in Somalia.

The border has two non-descript markers, short unmarked concrete obelisks set along the road, in a section of sand and scrub that looks like any other. But that was our sign to stop. Our Kenyan vehicles could go no farther. Soon, after we called our contacts in Somalia, an ancient small Nissan transport van arrived, and we switched vehicles, from our Kenyan trucks, to the rented Somali van.  Inside were Somali men who run a partner agency in Dadaab, and they would be leading us around town.

Gunfire seems normal

Dhobley was filled with livestock searching for a drink, and small shops like I have seen in other more established towns in Kenya. What was unusual was the military presence. Hundreds of young TFG soldiers dressed in green fatigues held old assault rifles and wandered around, on foot and in the back of pick-up trucks.

Every so often, I’d hear gunshots. Who was firing? I’m really not sure. I’d bet, though, that with no real functioning government, many people are armed. The crack of gunshots are common in Dhobley. People are saying, “Hi, how are you doing!” or “I am angry!” or some other message. But what we did not hear was prolonged gunfire to indicate an actual fight. And so, strangely, I stopped flinching when I heard a shot, and it just became ambient noise.

Medical clinic in Somalia.
Displaced families traveling through Dhobley receive medical attention at a World Concern clinic, in partnership with Medical Teams International.

No hospital, but a medical clinic

World Concern is joined in Dhobley with our partners at Medical Teams International, who work under World Concern in the response. One man and a woman are from Uganda, and usually work in that country. They are extremely talented folks with much relevant experience. Because of the crisis, they’ve been called up. Another man is a physician from Oregon who specializes at diagnosing rare diseases, along with a nurse who is an expert in disaster medical care. Both of them have been in about seven missions with MTI.

The MTI team saw patients in a small clinic. The one story building is under construction, and helps the community compensate for the loss of a hospital. Locals say that Al Shabaab commandeered the hospital when it controlled the town, using the building as a base of operations. During the fight to reclaim Dhobley, the building was more or less destroyed.

Searching for working water wells

While the MTI team saw patients, a team from World Concern drove from water source to water source in town to see how the systems were functioning. After evaluating several pumping stations, we see they need work, and form a plan for how to help. With a large population of displaced people, the demand for food and water has increased. We also notice that people are using a watering hole for livestock as their source of drinking water. This is a guaranteed way to spread disease.

People sharing water source with animals.
People and animals sharing a water source: a sure way to spread disease.

We’re also working here to ensure the hungry are fed. By using a voucher system, those in need are able to buy food from local businesses. We find that this is safer than trucking food down a road that is also home to bandits. And by buying from local vendors, we help the economy.

It is a safe bet that Dhobley receives many more refugees in the coming months. The primary road to the Dadaab refugee camps passes right through Dhobley. With continued unrest elsewhere in Somalia, and the growing famine, more families will decide to leave their homes, and search for a new life in Kenya as refugees.

Working for sustainability – with an eye on who’s really hurting

By helping communities with food, water and more, World Concern is working to help keep Somalis in Somalia, if possible, and out of the overburdened camps. And in our work with communities, we’re also helping ensure those who live in these towns on the border can survive the flood of travelers.

It is a complex problem, happening in a dangerous area, and it will get worse before it gets better. It is a difficult logistical and political equation to ensure long-term stability that will allow us to do the long-term transformational work that the community really needs.

What remains consistent, however, is the desperation from families who find themselves caught in the middle. It doesn’t matter that the security is rotten, and that bad people still roam freely here. The fact is that these families – men, women, boys and girls – need the basics of life. They need food and water, and without it, they will die.

Our goal is to be here long-term, to help the communities become more self sufficient, and less vulnerable. We want to see the communities transform. But the reality for now is that we are in a life-or-death crisis.

With those who are supporting us, we are able to make a small difference in this big disaster, making sure that families we touch will make it through this famine alive.

Learn and give: www.worldconcern.org/crisis

Water is flowing in drought-affected Damajale, Kenya

Engineers work on well pump.
Engineers work to repair the pump for the only deep well in Damajale, Kenya, a host community for thousands of Somali refugees.

There is water in Damajale, Kenya today, bringing relief and smiles to the faces of thirsty children and families.

About a week ago, the only deep well in this village along the Kenya-Somalia border failed. The pump, 150 meters underground, was working round the clock and finally quit. Watch the CNN iReport here.

Damajale is one of many host communities that has seen a massive influx of refugees. In the past month, an additional 2,000 to 3,000 people have arrived here, having walked for days – even weeks – in search of food and water.

Fatuma, a mother of eight, was brought to tears when she realized there was no water. She had walked 30 kilometers through the night to Damajale to find only empty jerrycans stacked around the well.

Families in Damajale, Kenya now have water.
This woman, named Asli, is smiling because she and her family now have water. In the background, animals drink from a trough filled with water.

“I struggle to stand here now, because I am so thirsty,” Fatuma said. “I don’t know when I will come back to my home. I may die on the way.”

World Concern is working in outlying host villages like this to get water and food to people there. Repairing and increasing the capacity of existing wells is one way we’re doing that.

In Damajale, we were able to get a new pump flown in, and engineers worked through the night to fix the well.

Today, water is flowing from the well.

To those who have donated to the famine response, the chairman of the elders of Damajale says, “You have come and rescued us. May God bless you.”

 

Learn more and donate.

The new pump is handed over.
The new pump is handed over to community leaders.
Kids play in a dry water trough.
Kids play in a dry trough, prior to the well being repaired.

Why we help in places like Somalia

As I read the daily news articles about the famine in the Horn of Africa, I’m continuously shocked at the angry comments posted at the end of these articles. Many of them are downright hateful, and imply that we as Americans should not help other countries where there are groups that have expressed hatred toward the U.S.

I’ve even heard questions like, “Why should I care?”  Or, “Haven’t those people brought this on themselves with their violence?”

A Somali family affected by the drought.
Somali families like this are suffering in the drought and in need of humanitarian aid.

To me, this is irrational thinking. Humanitarian organizations provide aid in some challenging places. We do so because there are innocent children and families who are caught in the middle and need help. In the case of Somalia, these families have no government to turn to for help. It doesn’t exist. Their crops have failed, their animals have died, and they have left their homes in search of survival.

In almost all suffering it is possible to point to people individually or corporately that are responsible for the injustice.  The most intense suffering and hardest to overcome is that which people inflict on others.  Injustice is not limited to the rich oppressing the poor.  Wherever people have an element of power – whether wealth, land, social, political or positional – over another person, there is the risk for oppression.  This is the situation in Somalia.  There are those with power that are oppressing the powerless.  This has held people down so they have been living just above the survival line in the best of times. The drought has limited food production for the last two years and plunged the population below the survival line. Oppressed people are dying.

So what is to be done about the oppressors in Somalia and the rest of the world?  As humanitarians, we believe reaching out to people in need shows a path other than violence as the answer.  I am not suggesting that if we care for those in need the oppressors will see the acts of kindness and change their ways. But those who receive help are given a chance to see compassion, rather than violence, in action.

All other concerns aside – these are people that are dying. When a child is withering away it really does not matter whether the cause is drought, ignorance, or social injustice. It is a precious child that is dying.  If we determine that any person is of less value because of where they were born, we have lost our humanity.

Providing supplies to Somali families.
A World Concern staff member provides emergency supplies to a displaced family in Somalia.

As one who deals with the issues of injustice everyday in my profession, I realize the impossibility of meeting every need myself. I feel the frustration of the overwhelming need weighed against limited resources.  But I also know that the real question I must answer is not how much can I help? But rather, should I care?  We can all do something.  If everyone did what they could, then extreme poverty could be conquered.

What is the purpose of our freedom if not to help the powerless?  We must do more than “do no evil.”  We must “do good.”  It is not enough to point fingers at the oppressors. We must help those that are oppressed.  We must reach out to those who cannot repay us and will never know our names.

This is what compassion is about.  This is what makes us different from those that oppress.

Can one person make a difference?

Last week we said goodbye to our Emergency Coordinator Tracy Stover as she boarded a plane for Dadaab, Kenya, where hundreds of thousands of refugees are in need of food and water. Watching her heavily loaded backpack disappear into the crowd at Sea-Tac airport, I found myself wondering, can one person really make a difference?

Kids in Kenya.
An estimated 500,000 children in the Horn of Africa are at risk of death from famine.

Tracy will be serving in the midst of the worst crisis facing the world today. The U.N. estimates 12.4 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. Half a million children are at risk of death from famine.

Figures like this cause us to wonder if even thousands of aid workers and millions of dollars can make a difference.

But Tracy is not going alone. She and the rest of the World Concern team working in the Horn of Africa have the support of donors. Like an invisible, potent force, those who are giving to this cause are making it possible for aid workers to save lives.

Can one person make a difference?

Anyone whose heart was touched by the tragic passing of 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith knows the answer is yes. Rachel’s legacy will live on for decades as entire villages will have clean water for generations to come because of her selfless act.

You can make a difference too. And you don’t have to do it alone. Most people will help if they are simply asked. Here are a few ways you could do that:

Host a dinner for friends. Ask each person to bring a potluck dish to share. Present some information about the famine in the Horn of Africa. Include stories of people who are hungry and in need. Ask everyone to consider donating whatever they would have spent on a nice dinner out to help families survive this disaster.

restaurant food
Ask your friends to give up dinner out and donate. (Photo: Simon Howden)

Sixty dollars can provide food and water for a family for a month. Think about that: the cost of one meal in a restaurant can keep five people alive for an entire month.

Hold a garage sale or rummage sale. Round up some friends at your church and ask members to donate unused clothing and household items for a charity sale. Donate the proceeds to help in the famine relief.

You can also dedicate a birthday, anniversary or even a day’s work to the cause. World Concern partner One Day’s Wages is raising funds to support the famine response. Check out their personal fundraising tools and think about what you could do to create your own fundraiser.

Can one person make a difference? You bet.

Get started today, and be sure to share your idea with us!

On the road to Somalia

An animal carcass on the road to Somalia.
Animal carcasses litter the road to Somalia.

Our team pulled out of Dadaab shortly after breakfast, on the road to Somalia. It’s a dry, dusty road, with thorny bush on either side. The road itself is badly rutted, so weave along the ditch, following two tire tracks in the sand. Occasionally, we jump up on the road and dip down the embankment to the other side, continuing the weaving through acacias, sand flying in little rooster tails behind us.

Following closely is our security escort, a good natured sergeant in the Administration Police, and three kids so green they barely shave. They get sent to the border fresh out of school, to work them in for a few years. Now, they chase behind us through the thorny wasteland.

The only sign of life are the dik-diks, meercats, and the birds. The birds are also a sign of death. The road is littered with cattle carcasses, at least one every kilometer, and the Marabou storks gather around them. I have never seen so many Marabou storks before. They are the undertakers of the animal kingdom, overdressed in their black coats, strutting awkwardly around, and omnipresent at a funeral. As we pull into Liboi, I notice the storks are bigger than the goats, or even a small child. And they are everywhere.

While we take some tea in Liboi, it starts to rain. Irony. Rain in a drought. But this isn’t really rain. I only notice it on my specs. It’s such a fine drizzle, my clothes don’t get wet, and the ground is no less dusty.

We head on, through a few checkpoints, and we are there. It comes as a bit of surprise, really. Our escort actually had to pull us over, so we didn’t cross the line. The Somalia border is signified by a stone. “That tree is Somali,” said our guide, “and this tree is a Kenyan.” As we waited for our vehicle from Somalia, we walked past the stone and looked around.

This was it. I was in Somalia. There were bullets in some of the trees, a battle had been fought here. One of the soldiers handed me a shell. “Your souvenir,” he said.

I returned to Liboi for a few hours, while I waited for the team in Somalia. At the borehole, warthogs jostled with goats for water. They told me even giraffes and gazelles came into town to get water now. “What about the lions?” I asked. There are about 20 out there, was the response, but they haven’t come into town. Later I met a refugee, who had seen a man killed by a lion attack in his travels.

I visited the school. It was Saturday, but the boarding students were still there, sleeping through the heat in their dorms with insufficient mattresses, hanging their laundry to dry from the broken panes of glass in the windows. Three hundred boys aged 12 and up, their parents nomadic, trying to finish primary school. They have 2 toilets, neither has a door. During the week the school swells to 800, and with their pipes broken, they can’t afford the water required for the kids to wash their hands before meals.

A young boy travels with his family across the Somalia-Kenya border.
A young boy travels with his family across the Somalia-Kenya border.

In a small hotel, I found 100 refugees sleeping in the carport. They were waiting for evening to continue their journey. My guide told me to take their picture – that they said it was okay. The women covered their faces and looked away. They asked if I had any food. I didn’t – not for 100 people – and I felt like an idiot. The children all have watery diarrhea. I urge them, when they get to the camp, to take all their children to the clinic. “They will help you in Dadaab,” I said. I hope I’m right. I take the pictures, get in the car, and drive off. This is the part I hate.

When I met the team, they seemed a bit stunned. “It’s different over there. The ratio of soldiers to civilians is 4:1. Everyone has a gun.” And yet, the situation is really the same. Not enough food, not enough water, and not enough health care. They visited a hospital with most of the equipment intact, but holes in the wall from mortars and bullets. The roof had been destroyed in parts, and other walls were cracked and falling. An NGO is subsidizing water costs there, so at least the water is not too expensive.

We headed back to Dadaab as the sun began to set. Along the way we met a refugee family and their goats. “We left Kismayu 30 days ago,” they tell us. “People are starving to death there.”

The family of nine sleeps where night finds them, all their belongings on a donkey cart. They lost all their cows, and decided to leave before their goats died too. The woman is pregnant, and the oldest child is about 12. “Many of our people are going to Dadaab. Being in the camp is better than the drought.”

I found two packs of biscuits and a carton of juice in the boot. Our guide, a better man than I, gave them fare for the bus he knew was coming, so the mother and children could ride for 50 kilometers. The red sun slipped below the horizon into night.

World Concern is one of the first NGOs to be able to help in southern Somalia since Al-Shabaab, the militant group that controls the area, lifted a ban on humanitarian aid groups coming in. Learn more about our response and donate at www.worldconcern.org/crisis.

 

Famine looms in Horn of Africa

The term “famine” is not used loosely. In fact, there hasn’t been an official famine since 1984-85 when a million people died in Ethiopia and Sudan. Many of us remember the shocking images of hollow-cheeked, emaciated children on the news.

A map showing the crisis and emergency areas.
Map from The Telegraph (www.telegraph.co.uk). Areas in the Horn of Africa severly affected by drought.

After multiple consecutive seasons of failed rains, the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Northeastern Kenya and Eastern Ethiopia) – is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years. The region is on the brink of famine.

In order to declare a famine, three conditions must be met:

  1. Lack of resources to meet basic food requirements
  2. Acute malnutrition rates above 30 percent
  3. The mortality rate reaches five people per 10,000 per day

Somali refugees are experiencing the first two of these, and Kenyan populations, the second. Acute malnutrition in the region is the highest since 2003, according to USAID. More than 10 million people are affected.

The forecast is bleak. August is expected to be dry. About 1,300 people a day are crossing the border from Somalia into Kenya, landing in ill-equipped, over-crowded refugee camps.

Skyrocketing food prices, conflict, and limited humanitarian access have added to the crisis. Between January and April 2011, food prices increased more than 25% in Kenya. Maize prices in Somalia rose 117% since May of last year, according to the UN. Most of these populations are entirely dependent on livestock for income, but animals are dying at a rate of 40-60% above normal in Ethiopia. In some parts of Kenya most severely affected by drought, water is being trucked in.

A mother and child in Eastern Kenya.
A mother and child in a drought-affected region of Eastern Kenya.

“The current situation has been looming for some time; predications and scenarios spoken of three months ago are now, sadly, coming to fruition,” said World Concern Senior Director of Disaster Response and Security Nick Archer.

Our staff in Kenya and Somalia are assessing the needs of people in Eastern Kenya and Somalia this week. We already work in the region, and have for many years, developing clean water sources and more in drought-affected communities.

With the announcement that Al Shabaab, the militant group in control of Southern Somalia, having lifted its ban on humanitarian agencies entering the area, we’re considering resuming work in the Juba Valley – an area so plagued by conflict, we had to leave several years ago.

The faces of starving children from past famines still haunt us. Millions of concerned people around the world responded to the Ethiopia famine with donations. In a crisis, our instinct is to help. As the word “famine” teeters on the tips of officials’ tongues, we’re thankful to be able to do something. You can help World Concern respond by donating here as we deliver water and more to families enduring this crisis.

And please, pray for rain.