Surviving Drought & Famine

Stories from the field

International Med. Corps
6 min readMay 11, 2017


Approximately half of Somalia’s population — 6.2 million — are facing acute food insecurity and are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Consecutive seasons of failed rains have caused crops to fail and livestock to die. For a population that relies on agriculture and livestock for food and livelihoods, this is devastating. Ongoing instability and conflict in Somalia make these conditions worse. Access to populations in-need is an ongoing struggle for humanitarian organizations.


Nalow Hassan, a 30-year-old wife and mother, lives in a camp for displaced Somalis with thousands of others who have fled their homes to escape the violence of war. Sadly, only two of her four children survive. Two others, aged 6 and 4, died in recent months of acute watery diarrhea — one of the effects of drought and food insecurity. “We eat once in a day,” said Nalow, weeping.

Nalow and her husband, Abdi, have been worried about the health of their 15-month-old son, Ahmed. He’s seriously ill and they haven’t been able to afford adequate care until International Medical Corps’ staff was able to make a referral.

Nalow and her family fled from Tiyeeglow in the Bakool region of Somalia in October 2016 after Al-Shabaab took control of the area. They now live in Domey displacement camp in Beledweyne, in south-central Somalia. According to the local authorities, 18,500 people live in makeshift shelters in the displacement camps around Beledweyne, where malnutrition is widespread and diseases, like acute watery diarrhea, are rampant.

The signs of Somalia’s drought are everywhere in Beledweyne. Skeletal trees and animal carcasses dot the dusty, barren landscape. Whatever livestock is still alive are thin and weak, their eyes sunken and their legs dragging from dehydration and malnutrition. The River Shabelle, which cuts through Beledweyne, is dry and people can be seen pushing the sand around in search for drinkable water.


“They told me nothing could be done for my son — that I should just wait for his death.”

Bisharo Ismail Guled recalls the hopelessness she felt when her youngest child, 4-year-old Ali, became sick. “My relatives told me that whooping cough cannot be treated. They insisted that taking him to the hospital would be a waste of time, that only God could save him now.” The 38-year-old mother of six lives in Budbud village, 120 km from Galkayo town — and from the nearest health facility.

“I didn’t have any money to take him to Galkayo, so my relative made a call and after a while an ambulance came and delivered us to the hospital.”

The ongoing drought in Somalia that has almost entirely wiped out livestock, forcing families into poverty and malnutrition, has also exacerbated the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, whooping cough and measles. Tragically, for many families, it is not the first time they have faced such conditions: drought and a subsequent famine hit Somalia in 2011, killing an estimated 260,000 people. Half of them were children.

When Ali was brought to Galkayo hospital, the young boy was unconscious and extremely weak. Ali was immediately diagnosed with whooping cough and severe acute malnutrition and admitted to a special unit, where he was provided with the appropriate treatment.

“I thank God my child is now recovering,” Bisharo says. “My child would not be alive if it was not for this support.”

International Medical Corps is responding as rapidly as possible, scaling up health and nutrition programs in Mudug, Galgaduud, and Banadir, three regions at the epicenter of this crisis. Our response includes a 54-bed stabilization center in southern Mudug, where we provide around-the-clock care for severely malnourished children with medical complications. We also treat malnourished children with outpatient services in Jowhar, Mogadishu, and Abudwak. We are also working in two displacement camps in Mogadishu to provide health and nutrition services. This includes mobile clinics that provide primary health and nutrition services as well as one fixed health center.


Now in its fourth year, the war has brought the world’s youngest nation to its knees. While famine conditions have subsided, thanks to humanitarian assistance, 45,000 are facing potentially catastrophic food insecurity. At the same time, 1.7 million people are living on the brink of famine. South Sudan has only 200km of paved road in the entire country, making it difficult to reach remote populations. United Nations flights are the primary method of humanitarian transport.


Nyalada Mamuol Kuon is nearly five years old and severely malnourished. She is receiving treatment for severe acute malnutrition at International Medical Corps’ nutrition program site in Gap, a village of roughly 1,600 people in Nyal Payom, Panyijar County, Unity State, South Sudan.

She fled fighting in Mayendit county with her grandmother, Geng Liah Gual, and other family members in March. It took them five days on foot to reach Nyal. “Security is better [in Nyal],” her Geng said, “but we are still suffering with [not having enough] food.”

Nyalada’s parents have been missing since the fighting first broke out in Juba in December 2013.

In Mayendit, the family lived on mostly water lilies. The area is one of two counties in South Sudan where famine has been formally declared. Her grandmother says that Nyalada’s condition worsened during their five-day walk to Nyal. “It is the first time we get services like these,” Geng said, when asked about International Medical Corps.


Martha Nyadak arrived in Nyal just one week ago with her husband and five children after fleeing Mayendit county, one of two counties in South Sudan where famine has been officially declared. “We were terrified,” she said. “We also suffered a lot with food.”

She estimates that they have lived off of mostly water lilies for the past year. “This is why all of the children have malnutrition,” she said. “They are also suffering from diarrhea.”

It took them six days by foot to reach Nyal, a grueling journey that sent them walking through the bush, often at night.

While security is better in Nyal, they are sleeping under a tree and food is still a struggle. “I want peace to come,” she said. We need food, shelter, mosquito nets, everything…It is good for us to have nutrition for the children,” she said, when asked about International Medical Corps’ services.”


Maria Nyakuok Jiek and her child, Keribino Tileek, fled from Leer to Mayendit County to escape fighting, but violence and hunger followed them. She said that Leer is now a ghost town, with all the houses burned to the ground and people’s belongings looted.

“We were surviving just on wild roots,” she said, when asked about what the food situation was like in Leer. It didn’t improve in Mayendit. “We found the same conditions in Mayendit, surviving off of leaves…and water lilies.”

The two countries are also the epicenter of South Sudan’s hunger crisis, with 100,000 people between the two counties facing starvation.

They left Mayendit in April for Panyijar County and are now in Nyal, where Keribino is receiving treatment for malnutrition from International Medical Corps. One week into treatment for severe acute malnutrition, Keribino is showing improvement. Maria asked for International Medical Corps to expand its nutrition services to breastfeeding mothers because she is struggling to produce milk to feed Keribino.

International Medical Corps runs two mobile medical units and two nutrition program sites in Nyal. The two clinics together see as many as 200 patients a day, typically for diarrhea, malaria, respiratory infections, and skin diseases. International Medical Corps is launching a third mobile medical unit by canoe to remote island communities in the Sudd, a giant swamp next to Nyal, where people have also sought refuge from fighting.

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International Med. Corps

International Medical Corps relieves the suffering of those impacted by conflict, natural disaster and disease by delivering medical relief and training.