Population Matters

Interrupting the Cycle of Hunger in the Horn

August 12th, 2011

The worst drought in East Africa in 60 years has turned into a famine of epic proportions in much of Somalia.  The numbers are staggering.  Of the 9.9 million people living in Somalia, 3.7 million of them are in crisis, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, with some 12.4 million at risk across the Horn of Africa.  In southern Somalia in just the last three months, over 29,000 children under the age of 5 have died.  An estimated 640,000 Somali children are currently acutely malnourished.

The UN’s declaration of famine on July 20 signifies that “acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 percent, more than 2 people per 10,000 die per day and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities.”

Somalia’s last severe famine occurred from 1991 to 1993; 240,000-280,000 people died and up to 2 million were displaced.  Unfortunately, not much appears to have changed in the last 20 years.  Child hunger is a chronic problem in Somalia. In fact, the infant mortality rate in 2009 was the same as that in 1990, with 40 percent of children exhibiting signs of malnutrition before the current drought.  While the situation may not have changed much between these two famines, we now have another opportunity to implement a new strategy for fighting hunger on the Horn of Africa.  As Secretary of State Clinton said at the International Food Policy Research Institute on Thursday, we must work to fight chronic and acute hunger in Somalia; these conditions are not “inevitable.”

While the international community works in the short-term to get emergency aid to those who need it, longer-term plans are being developed to make Somalia and other countries in the region more resilient and food secure.  Governance, infrastructure, and agricultural reforms are all part of any comprehensive solution.  However, in order for reforms to efficiently take root, family planning must be included. Somalia’s 9.9 million population is projected to jump to 13.3 million by 2025 and 22.6 million in 2050.  If we don’t make family planning and reproductive health services more widely available in the country, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make Somalia food secure.

Even prior to the famine, 32% of children in Somalia under the age of five were moderately or severely underweight, 13% suffered from moderate to severe wasting and 42% from moderate to severe stunting.  These poor outcomes begin in pregnancy; the child of an undernourished woman is more likely to suffer from permanent stunting.  However, only 1% of married women in Somalia use modern contraception, and the total fertility rate is a world-high 6.4 children per woman.  Without better access to reproductive health services, including contraceptives and neo-natal care, maternal and infant mortality rates will remain unacceptably high, and children will be inadequately nourished.

Empowering women should be an integral part of any long-term strategy for combating hunger and improving lives in Somalia.  It is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman: over 50% of the agricultural workforce is female, maternal mortality is shockingly high, and women have little control over their lives, including their reproductive lives.  In Somalia, as in many developing countries, the first and most vital step to improving food security and preventing famine is improving the lives of women.

Posted by Hannah Ellison, Public Policy Fellow

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