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Somalia: Losing Livelihoods As Drought Bites in Juba Valley

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Somalia: Losing Livelihoods As Drought Bites in Juba Valley

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April 13, 2006


The smell of death is inescapable in southern Somalia. It hangs around the wells, the watering holes and the desert roads. On the outskirts of the towns and villages in Juba Valley, people are burning the carcasses of cattle or dragging the bodies to mass graves, far out in the bush.

Flocks of carrion birds settle near the temporary settlements of nomads who have walked their weak and dying livestock into the towns in search of assistance.

Humanitarian agencies have warned that Somalia, a Horn of Africa nation affected by prolonged regional drought, faces a crisis.

In Dif, near the Kenyan border, the sun rises - again - on the scene at the public wells. A sea of sway-backed, skeletal cattle stand shoulder-to-shoulder with camels, goats and sheep. There is a hint of iron in the sky: Rain is on the way. Jama Abdi Jama squats near his duk, a temporary shelter of sticks and brush. He watches as the local health officer and traders piles up carcasses to be burnt. "The cattle are burnt. I am also burnt. I have nothing," he said.

Jama Abdi Jama trekked 600 km from Luuq, near the Ethiopian border. Severe drought persuaded him to bring his herd of cattle to Dif, where a generator pumps water from public wells, and food has arrived from a Kuwaiti charity, Towfiq. He had sent his camels to the southern coastal city of Kismayo, and set out with his cattle to look for help, but the gamble did not pay off. He walked for weeks, and all his animals died. A man dispossessed, he has little to say. His wife and children are still in Luuq, and he is puzzled about what to do next.

"It has never happened to me before, so I don't know how to start again," he said. Jama Abdi has no immediate plans to move. He lives on the outskirts of town, looking for small menial jobs - like carrying sacks for the traders - hoping to earn enough cash to meet his basic needs and eat once a day. As he watches, mesmerised by the burning pyre, the skies open, hammering the congregation of animals with rain. His livelihood already devastated, the advent of rain is an added tragedy. The seasonal rains are now flooding the small urban centres, making it difficult to move, damaging food that has been stored, making the wells dirty and turning carcasses into a health hazard. The desert roads have turned to wet clay, making it impossible to drive or walk long distances.

Oxfam has warned that the change in weather would not bring a speedy end to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia. It could make the situation worse by blocking delivery of supplies and causing sanitation problems. "Pastoralist communities crowded in urban centres to receive aid are now exposed to major threats from diseases, particularly malaria, acute diarrhoeal disease and cholera," the agency said.

Huge health needs

In Afmadow hospital, a small, dark room with a sign saying "Children's Ward" hanging on the door is full of women and babies who sit around randomly on the floor. Rehydration drips are balanced between the patients. Over the last two days, 24 children with watery diarrhoea and vomiting have been brought in for treatment. The "doctor" - a clinical officer - puts the sickness down to dirty water. Three male nurses do their best to get needles into tiny veins, holding the screaming children down until the drip can be fixed.

Drug kits from the Swedish NGO, SOWA, have just arrived. Otherwise, there is no support for the hospital, said Hassan Musa Maalim. A clinical officer who works with six qualified nurses, he writes prescriptions for patients who come from as far away as Gedo, Baidoa and northeastern Kenya. Serious cases must be transported - somehow - to the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinic in Mererey, the main hospital in Kismayo or to Kenya.

"We have no X-ray, no lab, no mortuary. The buildings are very old and need repair. We have no qualified doctor, no salaries, no transportation. There has been no UN agency or NGO working here for years. My question is, why?" he asked.

The main sicknesses are lower respiratory diseases, anaemia, tuberculosis and diarrhoea, Hassan Musa said. However, one of the biggest problems in treating patients is that they buy drugs from unqualified people at the market. The drugs are of dubious quality and content, and frequently expired. He has also seen several cases of severe malnutrition, which he believes are drought-related - but he lacks the resources to conduct a survey.

In Mererey, the MSF clinic sends out vehicles to bring in seriously ill people, including severely malnourished children. One member of the staff said: "We have seen a small rise in malnutrition rates but we are worried about the long term effects of the drought because many people have lost their livelihoods."

Failed crops and livestock deaths have contributed to increased malnutrition among children, which is as high as 25 percent in the worst affected areas. "These areas have also been profoundly affected by insecurity, which has limited the provision of emergency assistance," warned the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in a briefing paper on drought in the Horn of Africa on 23 March.

Some food prices have almost doubled because of scarcity. The cost of a 50kg of sugar has more than doubled from US $0.36 to $0.64. Maize prices dropped to $3.6 when food aid arrived in the town, in late march, but within 10 days had risen again to $6. Nomads who have lost their cattle struggle for ways to earn cash. A cow, which sells for about $143 under normal circumstances, now fetches only $14 to 21. Weak animals cannot even be sold, and the pastoralists usually do not slaughter animals, even when they know the animal is doomed to die. Even the stronger animals are unlikely to bring in money in a market without buyers.

On the outskirts of Afmadow town, Halima Mohamed Olow cares for three orphaned calves in her duk, as well as her six young children. After losing more than half their cattle herd, the family brought the remaining animals to town and moved in with a cousin. Halima worries about the health of her children, who are scantily dressed and coughing. Sometimes they attend the Koranic school. Three thin cream cows are tethered near the home. One brown cow - "She is called Magen" - has collapsed near the brush enclosure.

"We eat together and live together, and my husband sometimes manages to get work in town," Halima said. Her husband earns $1.43 for doing menial jobs. He received a sack of food from one of the traders when he helped transport sacks to the shop.

As Halima speaks, the smallest calf licks her elbow and nudges her arm. "I feed her tea when I can, but I had nothing this morning," she said.

According to aid agencies, an estimated 1.7 million people in northern, central and southern Somalia are facing an acute food and livelihood crisis or humanitarian emergency because of prevailing drought. That number could rise to 1.8 million - including 800,000 highly vulnerable children - over the coming months.

Last month, aid agencies launched a revised appeal for US $326.7 million to avert a humanitarian disaster in Somalia.

Source: IRIN

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