Report estimates 260,000 died in Somalia famine

An exhausted mother stays by her malnourished son's side in a Turkish field hospital on August 19, 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia.

A new report estimates that 260,000 Somalis died in the 2011 famine. Half of the victims were five years old or younger. The Associated Press has jumped the gun and revealed details of the report before it’s officially released Thursday by FEWSNET, a famine early warning system funded by the U.S., and the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit - Somalia.

The death toll of 260,000 is higher than that of the Asian tsunami. But, back in 2011, the U.N. warned that three times that many people could die from the famine in Somalia.

Jeremy Konyndyck is director of policy for the global relief organization, Mercy Corps. “260,000 is a shocking number. At the same time, once that response did kick in, albeit late, I think it had a real impact. And you can see that in the fact that that worst-case scenario was averted,” says Konyndyck.

Tony Burns is director of operations for SAACID, the oldest and largest NGO in Somalia. He says the U.N. dragged its feet in declaring a famine in Somalia because it didn’t want Islamic extremists, called al-Shabab, to confiscate the relief supplies.

“It was a political decision and it did cost lives,” says Burns.

Burns says victims of the famine in areas controlled by al-Shabab were cut off from aid. “Throughout the famine, they never received a dollar in cash or in kind in terms of famine relief,” says Burns.

A spokesperson from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declined to comment for this story.

But the failures of the past have helped change policies going forward.

“One of the big lessons of this famine is humanitarian systems should not be waiting for a declaration of famine. Or, you know, an imminent declaration of famine, before it scales up,” says Konyndyck.

The next disaster may not be so far away. Konyndyck expects another major draught in the Horn of Africa within the next three to five years.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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