Famine in Somalia: How Do You Feed Four Million Hungry People?

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A Somali woman holds her seven-month-old malnourished child at a field hospital in Dadaab, Kenya. (Photo: Schalk van Zuydam / AP)

As 13 million in the Horn of Africa seek food assistance, aid workers are facing unique political and logistical challenges in helping an estimated 3.7 Somalis facing the threat of malnutrition and starvation.

While international organizations such as UNICEF and UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, work with local governments to provide aid in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, Somalia — large tracts of which are lawless, ruled over by warlords and Islamist factions — presents difficulties for distribution and for adequately reaching those in need. Challiss McDonough, the World Food Programme’s senior spokesperson for east, central and southern Africa, said that her U.N.-affiliated organization will need to take charge of feeding 11.6 million people in the region after the worst drought in decades devastated at least five countries. In Mogadishu alone, the WFP feeds over 300,000 people each day, but many of the areas in the southern part of the country may never be reachable for aid workers as the Islamist group Al-Shabaab has largely barred humanitarian efforts for the past year and a half.

“We are seeing that there are windows of opportunity to return to areas that have been inaccessible to us,” McDonough told TIME. “It’s such a patchy situation on the ground, and such a complex place with clan dynamics that the assistance opportunities will vary from place to place.”

Anti-Western sentiment doesn’t simply threaten aid distribution in Al-Shabaab controlled areas, but in the capital Mogadishu as well. The WFP has had to adjust its standard program of providing month-long rations in favor of daily soup kitchen-style “wet feeding centers,” McDonough said. “Sometimes it would be dangerous for people to take food home: someone may try to steal it, or they may even be punished for getting it.” But with these feeding centers and more specialized “targeted supplementary feeding” centers (which provide nutrition supplements intended for malnourished children and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers) the WFP is able to reach much of the needy.

The first food delivery since the U.N. declared an official Somalian famine arrived by airlift on July 27. Ten tons of nutrition-supplemented peanut-based paste was flown into Mogadishu from Kenya, and McDonough said there are several more planned deliveries in coming weeks. Once food arrives, the WFP largely outsources distribution to other NGOs and sometimes local government, but the organization employs “rigorous monitoring and controls” to ensure that the food is reaching its intended targets, McDonough said. This means that WFP staff will occasionally visit sites to make sure that the food is not wasted.

Another method in the WFP’s toolkit has been to partner with schools in northern Somalia to establish daily lunch provisions. Oftentimes, McDonough said, these lunches will be the only meal a child will get each day, so it provides a powerful incentive for parents to send their children to school. But even as logistical issues are ironed out, aid agencies are forced to confront insufficient food supplies.

As deliveries are coordinated, WFP organizers are also scrambling to secure sufficient funds to continue feeding the millions going hungry in the region. Combining food, delivery and staffing costs, the WFP estimates that it is currently facing a $300 million shortfall. Funds are coming in, McDonough said, especially after the U.N. declared an official famine last week, but these will not provide a quick fix to the crisis. McDonough estimated that the organization requires a minimum of two months to turn donations into direct aid and, more often than not, the process takes between four and six months. Given this logistical issue, she says she wishes that the world had listened when the WFP and other agencies first sounded the alarm after the drought became obviously severe several months ago. “We could see there was a coming storm, and we did not get a response.”

Meanwhile in Kenya, government and UN planning has largely paid off in efficiently handling the waves of refugees streaming into the Dadaab refugee camps. Although over 400,000 Somalis are estimated to be residing inside or on the outskirts of the three camps in the area, UNHCR spokesperson Emmanuel Nyabera told TIME that all of them are receiving sufficient food supplies through bi-monthly rations. Refugees who have no place in the camps are also all provided mats and shelter-building materials until they can be moved into more substantial accommodations.

The Kenyan government agreed to officially open another camp, called Ifo Extension, on Monday. This new encampment is expected to house another 80,000 refugees. Additionally, the UNHCR and the Kenyan government have already begun establishing another camp, Nyabera said, which will be called “Kampios” and should house over 125,000 refugees upon completion.

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.