Dust swirls around our 4×4 as we speed across an open plain in remote Somaliland heading to an emergency: a suspected cholera outbreak.
Zainab Abdirahrnan, the branch manager at the Somali Red Crescent, has received an urgent text message from a village elder that several children have died overnight from vomiting and diarrhoea.
With over 4,000 volunteers, the Somali Red Crescent runs a mobile health service bringing healthcare to remote and vulnerable communities across the country, locally dubbed ‘the NHS of Somalia’.
Somali Red Crescent Branch Manager Zainab registers patients at the makeshift health clinic that used to be a school, Somaliland (c) Jack Hill / The Times
One of the worst affected countries in the current food crisis gripping the East and Horn of Africa, Somalia is described by the UN as on ‘the brink of famine’. Humanitarian needs have risen sharply in recent months; over half the population (6.2 million people) are in urgent need of food, water and shelter. It’s just six years since a food crisis here left 250,000 people dead, half of them children. The current severe drought, stemming from two consecutive seasons of poor rainfall, threatens to have similar deadly consequences.
When we arrive in the village of Golijano which translates as ‘mountain of heaven’, we are met with a scene more akin to hell. A makeshift school, now an emergency clinic, is full of weak, lifeless children fighting to survive. Sickness and diarrhoea have ripped through this community at pace. A desperate father runs in carrying his young daughter in his arms; her body limp, her eyes rolling back in her sunken face. Helpless parents cradle their children; their little bodies so weak from hunger the nurses struggle to find a vein for the glucose drip they so desperately need.
This crisis is taking a cruel turn; from hunger and thirst to deadly sickness. Somalia, a severely underdeveloped country, lacks the basic infrastructure in water management, food production and healthcare to endure these enormous shocks.
Zainab has recorded 56 patients, 14 have arrived just today. “The cases we’re seeing are an emergency,” she says.
We meet one father, Abdul who is here with his two-year-old son Yusuf. He carried his son here this morning with his pregnant wife Zahara. Tragically, she passed away when she arrived. It was too late. Abdul has already lost two other children. Yusuf is his only remaining family.
“I don’t know if he will live,” says Abdul, “I have lost everything else, first my livestock, then my wife. I loved my wife, she was my life. She was everything.”
Adbul looks on in despair as his two-year-old son Yusuf is treated, Somaliland (c) Jack Hill / The Times
People have moved here in a desperate search for food and water. Traditionally nomadic pastoralists, this way of life has been destroyed by the drought. Families have seen their livestock literally drop down dead in front of them. The news of water spreads like gossip and people move to where its promise is whispered.
Over a million people are currently displaced in Somalia. The result is a huge number of people on the move, gathering together for support and living in crowded homemade shelters; brightly coloured clashing fabrics sewn together like patchwork quilts. With no food, clean water or somewhere safe to go to the toilet, sickness and disease are spreading. More than 25,000 people have contracted cholera across Somalia since the start of this year.
People who are so connected to the land and nature, people who have based their whole lives on moving with the seasons, say they have never seen a drought like this. When I speak to people most can’t even remember the last time it rained. Driving across Somaliland it’s easy to mistake the once flowing rivers for open roads. Riverbeds as wide as motorways intersect like a spaghetti junction in the desert.
Even those whose memory of the 2011 famine is still fresh in their mind are shocked by what they are witnessing today. “This drought is the worst I can remember and the worst I have heard from our forefathers,” says Asia Hussein, a mother of nine children who has moved in search of water.
Over 9 million people are in need of clean drinking water in Somalia. The people we meet rely solely on water trucks that drive through the village once a week. It costs around $7 for 20 litres. “We can only buy water when we have the money,” Ayan says “when we don’t we have to beg people for water.”
The makeshift health clinic struggles to treat all the patients, Somaliland (c) Jack Hill / The Times
Many families are eating just one meal every two days; 363,000 children are acutely malnourished. The meagre rations people have to eat is often not diverse enough to provide the quality and balanced diets they need
Next week the Prime Minister Theresa May will host the London Somalia Conference, attended by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. Having seen the scale of the crisis first-hand, this conference can’t come soon enough for the people of Somalia.
Support the British Red Cross East Africa Appeal:www.redcross.org.uk/eastafrica or call 0300 023 0817.