Catholic aid agencies race to save millions in Somalia from ravages of drought

By James Martone | OSV News

UNITED NATIONS (OSV News) — In Somalia, 8.3 million people are in urgent need of assistance due to widespread drought that has displaced 1.4 million people, most of whom are women and children, according to the United Nations.

The world body also cautioned that as food prices rise, so do the rates of hunger and malnutrition in the East African nation.

“Today, the situation is once again alarming,” warned U.N. Security-General António Guterres, during an April 12 press conference in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

“Climate change is causing chaos. Somalia has experienced five consecutive poor rainy seasons, and this is unprecedented,” Guterres continued. He noted, “Poor and vulnerable communities are pushed by the drought to the brink of starvation, and the situation can get worse.”

The U.N. chief’s visit and warnings came after a joint U.N. and Somali government report in March indicating that as many as 43,000 people, half of them children under 5, died in Somalia last year, and that anywhere between 18,000 and 34,000 more people were likely to die there as well within the first six months of this year.

Those numbers might be even higher, said Kev del Castillo, who oversees emergency response and recovery programs for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Somalia.

“Too many children are dying … and they will continue to die if the international community doesn’t pay attention,” he told OSV News April 15.

Somali refugees fleeing the drought walk in the new arrivals area of the Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border, in Garissa County, Kenya, Jan. 17, 2023. (OSV News photo/Thomas Mukoya, Reuters)

CRS, the U.S. Catholic Church’s overseas relief and development program, was doing what it could to help through its humanitarian aid programs reaching more than 1 million people across Somalia’s most vulnerable districts, mostly with health, nutrition and water services, del Castillo said.

The need was especially great in Somalia’s various camps for internally displaced persons, “where people are living under barely survivable conditions and with substandard resources,” he said. Del Castillo, who is based in Somalia, described seeing “children barely holding onto their life, in their mother’s arms.”

“Our main goal throughout this drought has been to prevent deaths and slow down the deterioration of conditions,” del Castillo said, adding CRS also was training local community health care workers and personnel to assure longtime sustainability of its programs.

The U.N. secretary-general’s recent visit to Somalia was “one important step” toward increasing international attention on what was happening there, he said, but more was needed.

“Many people have written off Somalia as a place that will always struggle for stability, and some people don’t feel the need to support a place that they might view as hopeless,” said del Castillo.

Among reasons for hope, he noted, were the weakening in the country of the al-Shabaab militants that terrorized Somalia for years, the increased control of the government, and the opening of the country’s economy “to more opportunities.”

Del Castillo said Somalia “has the potential, but it needs the international support and investment that has been missing for too long.”

Bishop Giorgio Bertin, who has been apostolic administrator of Mogadishu since 1990 and is president of Caritas Somalia, told OSV News that Guterres’ visit to Somalia “should help not to forget” the crisis in the country, at a time of other major world crises — such as the war in Ukraine and the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey.

With its limited budget from Italy and some private donors, the bishop said Caritas Somalia was helping approximately 11,000 Somalis, mostly women and children, with water, shelter, and latrines. It was looking at possibly building a school in the Bakool region, but insecurity is “still a problem” due to a continued presence of al-Shabaab.

“We are trying to arrange a kind of more permanent presence” in Somalia, said Bishop Bertin, who operates out of the tiny neighboring nation of Djibouti. He has headed the Diocese of Djibouti since 2001.

In efforts to expand Caritas assistance to Somalia, Bishop Bertin said he met regularly with Somali officials, including that country’s National Assembly president and the minister of religious affairs last December in Mogadishu.

He just returned from a three-day meeting in Kenya on the repatriation of migrants and refugees, where he discussed various ways of assistance with Somali representatives.

“I can say that at the individual level there are good people and good minds among the Somalis, but I would implore that they should try to cooperate among themselves … and also with the different institutions being reborn from a federal state,” said the bishop.

CRS’ Del Castillo, meanwhile, implored the world to do more to “close the door on three decades of turmoil and devastation” in Somalia.

“My request to the world: to give Somalia a chance, to pay attention to its needs and to understand that this country is full of good people,” he said, “who have been faced with a lifetime of challenges.”

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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