Mothers cling to hope of help in Horn of Africa

The world cannot look away as children start dying

By Malene Jensen
A young boy scooping out water for drinking from the dried out river of Dawa near Dollow in Somalia.
UNICEF/Sebastian Rich
14 March 2022

The mothers and children of the Horn of Africa are starting to lose the fight against pockets of near famine as the worst drought in 40 years is unleashing hunger, thirst, displacement and death on already vulnerable communities.

Families here have one plea for the rest of the world. Please don’t look away. Please help.

Their stories are eerily similar and told by worried mothers from bedsides in nutrition centres; from the cracked grounds of internally displacement camps where sticks and cloth substitute for homes; and dried out river beds where families have come to dig for dirty water out of pure desperation.

A man and children holding jerry cans standing on a dry river bed
UNICEF/Sebastian Rich
Ibrahim Yagar Yaqub, 56, with his nephews at the Dawa River near Dollow in Somalia to dig for water in the river bed.

Our children are suffering, our children are dying, they’re telling us.

“We feel forgotten,” said Faduma, in Dollow, Somalia where she and the community are helping hundreds of newly arrived people who have fled drought and insecurity. But there is little to share. “Everyone here is suffering,” said Faduma. “We are suffering together.”

Three years of failed rains have killed off cattle, crops and is now coming for the children in the Horn of Africa, where a toxic cocktail of the impacts of climate related drought, conflict and COVID19 is creating a perfect storm of horror.

Add the global ripple effect of increasing food and fuel prices from a devastating conflict in Ukraine, which in itself is unleashing unspeakable horror on the children there, and you have the perfect storm for children here.

In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia alone, nearly 14 million people – about half of them children – are severely food insecure and trying to survive scorching temperatures and climate impacted crises that are becoming more frequent and intense. It has left families without coping mechanisms - such as cattle and crops - to deal with cycles of emergencies from drought to floods.

A woman and give children sitting in front of a small shelter.
UNICEF/Sebastian Rich
Owliyo Moge Mohamed Ali, 30, with five of her seven children outside their makeshift tent in an informal settlement for internally displaced people near Dollow, Somalia. They left all their possession behind when they fled drought and insecurity. This is what they have left.

Right now, UNICEF is in urgent need of US$ 119.5 million to reach some 20 million high-risk people throughout the Horn of Africa with lifesaving support before it’s too late, as well as added capacity to withstand future shocks.

Time is not on their side. Desperation is setting in as more and more people are forced to flee their communities and flock to pockets within their countries where they’re hoping to find drops of clean water, nutrition for their children and medicines to prevent the worst from happening.

Owliyo, 30, and her seven children are among the desperate who have come to Dollow, Somalia. They left their farm after drought and insecurity took it all – crops and cattle. For the past four months, the family has been living in a self-made tent too small to sleep in. Their worldly possessions are down to the clothes on their backs, one plate, one cup, one bowl, and a borrowed pot from a neighbor on the rare occasions where she has rice, pasta or Injera to cook for her children.  

The most heart-wrenching thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  This crisis was three years in the making and we know from previous droughts that when the world comes together, we can avert famine, we can help families, and we can save lives.

Yet despite months of warnings, UNICEF and partners are coming short of the funds needed to keep pace with ever-growing needs. If the world waits any longer, it will be too late for too many.

Portrait of Faduma
UNICEF/Sebastian Rich
Faduma Abdi Khadir Hussein, 52, is from Dollow. She and the community are helping the internally displaced by sharing what little they have and by providing land where families can stay.

For mothers like Fatuma, 32, it already is. Her five-year old son died of measles last week. Now she is at a Mogadishu children’s ward fighting for the life of his 18-month-old brother Mohamed, who is suffering from the same. Fatuma blames the drought, which she fears is leaving children so malnourished that measles becomes an easy killer.

The world must not fail mothers like Fatuma. We cannot wait to take action until heart-wrenching images of emaciated children start flooding news channels. 

The time to act is now. If we do, we can help avert a full-on humanitarian catastrophe.