Thursday briefing: How food prices and the climate crisis brought famine to Somalia once more

<span>Photograph: Jérôme Delay/AP</span>
Photograph: Jérôme Delay/AP

Yesterday in Birmingham, Liz Truss had her speech interrupted by Greenpeace activists. In Somalia, the consequences of the climate crisis are infinitely more severe.

One million people have been displaced by the worst drought the country has seen in decades. There have been harrowing reports of hungry families having to bury loved ones on the side of the road as they journey for days, and sometimes weeks, in search of assistance or aid. Those who reach the camps in urban centres often receive little to no help. The situation is only worsening, with the UN warning that “famine is at the door” in Somalia. However, because data can be difficult to collect, by the time a famine is declared, it’s often too late.

Today, I’ll be looking at why Somalia is heading into its third famine in just over a decade and what could be done to mitigate the damage. That’s right after the headlines.

PS: The big story in the UK yesterday was, of course, the prime minister’s speech at Conservative party conference. The common consensus was she did enough to keep her supporters happy, but not enough to persuade her critics that she can reunite her party and force through her ambitious economic programme. The loudest applause came when the embattled PM was interrupted by the two aforementioned climate activists, who had the presence of mind to bring a second sign – reading “Who voted for this?” – to pull out when their first one was removed by security. There’s a runthrough of the Guardian’s comprehensive coverage of the speech just after In Depth below.

Five big stories

  1. Conservatives | Liz Truss has attempted to unite her party around a common enemy of the “anti-growth coalition” of unions, remainers and green campaigners after a turbulent Tory conference that left her party downbeat and divided, and her leadership in peril.

  2. Energy | Ministers are discussing a public information campaign to encourage households to reduce energy use this winter as fears grow over blackouts. Households could be asked to turn thermostats down and use dishwashers and washing machines at night.

  3. Ukraine | Vladimir Putin has appeared to concede the severity of the Kremlin’s recent military reversals in Ukraine, insisting Russia would “stabilise” the situation in four Ukrainian regions it illegally claimed as its own territory last week.

  4. Justice | Electronic ankle tags are being used to racially target and sentence young black men for knife crime offences in a way that “may reflect unconscious bias” among Metropolitan police officers, according to internal documents from the mayor of London’s office.

  5. Strikes | For the first time in its history, the Royal College of Nurses will ask its 300,000-strong membership if they want to strike, with the union encouraging them to vote yes. If industrial action over pay moves forward, the NHS will be severely disrupted in the winter.

In depth: ‘I couldn’t get out of my head the tiny mounds marking children’s graves’

People gather at a displacement camp on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022.
People gather at a displacement camp on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, on 19 September 2022. Photograph: Jérôme Delay/AP

Here are some numbers to put into context the scale of the crisis facing Somalia: 730 children have died in food and nutrition centres across the country between January and July; 213,000 people are at “imminent risk” of dying; 22 million people are at risk of starvation.

This is all before famine has been formally declared in the region. To meet that criteria, over 20% of households will face an extreme lack of food, 30% of children will be acutely malnourished and over two people in every 10,000 will die “due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease”.

This is nothing new for Somalia. The 2011 famine killed more than 250,000 people in the country. Roughly half of those deaths happened before the official declaration. Reports coming out of the country suggest that the situation now is considerably worse. Famine declarations are rare, so the grave warnings from the UN and other humanitarian organisations are dire signs of what’s to come.

Famine has already taken hold in two areas in the Baidoa and Burhakaba districts, in south-central Somalia. Children will be at the sharp end – in the last famine half of those who died were younger than five. This time Unicef estimates that 386,000 children are at risk of death without immediate treatment. More than half of children aged under five are facing acute malnutrition, which includes one in six (513,500) who are suffering from the most deadly form of malnutrition.

Young children often die on the journeys their families take to find help. Unicef’s deputy regional director, Rania Dagas, said: “I couldn’t get out of my head the tiny mounds of ground marking children’s graves.” How have things gotten this bad?


The climate crisis

People in Somalia are accustomed to dry spells and drought, but the latest one has left the country on its knees. Agro-pastoralists and farmers who have survived countless dry seasons are unable to produce sufficient crops – the extreme heat has also killed 3 million livestock. And things aren’t getting any better. The latest outlook by the ICPAC climate centre shows a high likelihood of a fifth failed rainy season, meaning the country has been in a state of perpetual drought since 2020.

Scientists from Nasa say that the drought has been caused by the La Niña weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean – which refers to the wide-range cooling of ocean surface temperatures – and the climate crisis. Rainfall has been declining in east Africa for decades as a result of the climate crisis, and this has been made even worse during the La Niña event. At the same time increasing temperatures in the air, caused by human-made global warming, are making droughts even worse on the ground as the atmosphere pulls moisture from the plants and soil, making it difficult to farm.

Even though collectively Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya emit just 0.1% of total global CO2 emissions, they have been paying the highest price for the climate crisis. Alongside the drought there have been a series of other extreme weather events like cyclones and flash floods, as well as locust infestations: all of these are exacerbated and made more likely by the climate crisis. The frequency of these events makes it almost impossible to rebuild.


Food prices

Two years of a pandemic and severe drought has meant that food prices in Somalia were already at record highs. Then Russia invaded Ukraine and things got even worse. This is because since the civil war began in the early 1990s, Somalia has become highly dependent on food imports: 90% of its wheat was sourced from Russia and Ukraine and 60% of its overall food supply is imported, leaving the country exceptionally vulnerable to the fluctuations in the global economy.

The price of a kilogram of rice has more than doubled from 75 cents to (USD)$2. Three litres of cooking oil rose from $4.50 to $9.50. Poor people in Somalia were already spending 60-80% of their income on food, so these kinds of increases price many of them out of eating altogether.


Past famines

Famines have long lasting impacts – there are people still in camps in Somalia who were displaced during the famines in 2011 and 2017. The consequences of these traumas go far beyond the starvation conditions that many Somalis have lived through. Data from the IRC shows that gender-based violence including FGM, intimate partner violence and exploitation increases during times of crisis.

The Somali government has been sounding the alarm for months, issuing a Drought Declaration in April, but little international action has been taken until very recently. The UN has now reached 70% of its fundraising target and there are more and more people on the ground trying to reach remote areas and deliver assistance.

However this is, at best, a short term fix. Unless decisive action is taken to deal with the climate crisis, these droughts will continue to lead to unfathomable levels of human suffering.


A message from George Monbiot

With the exception of all-out nuclear war, all the most important issues that confront us are environmental. There is barely an Earth system that is not now threatened with collapse.

Yet you would scarcely know it. Most of the media, most of the time, either ignores our environmental crisis, downplays it or denies it. The reason is not difficult to discern. Most of the media are owned by corporations or billionaires, who have a major financial interest in sustaining business as usual.

Part of the Guardian’s mission is to fill in the gaps, to cover issues overlooked by most of the rest of the media, and – above all – to highlight the issues whose neglect could be fatal to much of life on Earth. Almost every week, we break major environmental stories, many of which feature nowhere else in the media.

As a reader-funded news organisation, we need your help to continue to expand the scope of our enquiries, and to place environmental issues where they belong: at the front and centre of people’s minds. Thank you.

George Monbiot, Guardian columnist

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The final day of Conservative party conference

  • Aubrey Allegretti reports on the reaction among senior Conservatives to Liz Truss’s speech – including those who tellingly skipped it: “Frankly, I couldn’t bring myself to watch her trying to justify the impossible,” one former cabinet minister says.

  • John Crace damned the speech with faint praise: “She had made it to the lectern without falling over. And none of the scenery had collapsed. A distinct improvement on Theresa May.”

  • Did you recognise Truss’s dress? Perhaps it reminded you of Emma Thompson’s fascist prime minister from BBC drama Years and Years (pictured below).

What else we’ve been reading

This image released by FX shows Jeremy Allen White, left, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, right, in a scene from ‘The Bear’.
This image released by FX shows Jeremy Allen White, left, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, right, in a scene from ‘The Bear’. Photograph: AP
  • Sirin Kale captures the neurosurgeon and writer Henry Marsh at a melancholic, funny, strangely gentle moment in his remarkable life, knowing that prostate cancer is likely to return and kill him. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. Archie

  • Maya Goodfellow examines the escalating hostility of the home secretary, Suella Braverman, and what her rhetoric means for the direction of immigration policy in Britain. Nimo

  • It’s always very satisfying to see a five-star review of a show you love. Do read Lucy Mangan on The Bear (pictured above), and watch it, but not everyone, because then I wouldn’t be able to show off by recommending it to people. Archie

  • As someone who cannot stand silence, and needs podcasts, music or general sound to do any task, it felt like Emma Beddington’s piece on brown noise was written specifically for me. Who knows, you might find a new way to help you doze off. Nimo

  • Stop worrying about quiet quitting and think about loud labouring instead, writes professor of organisational behaviour André Spicer, who makes a persuasive case that the real toxin in an office is the people who only do things they can show off about. Archie


Champions League | Borussia Dortmund struck three times in the first half to beat their hosts Sevilla 4-1 on Wednesday and stay firmly on course for the last 16.

Rugby union | Worcester Warriors players and staff are to have their contracts terminated after the company that held those contracts was liquidated in the high court on Wednesday. HMRC has been pursuing the Warriors for unpaid tax in the region of £6m.

Chess | The embattled American grandmaster Hans Niehmann struck a defiant pose on Wednesday in his first public appearance since an investigation found that he had cheated in more than 100 online games, far more frequently than he had previously disclosed.

The front pages

Reaction to Liz Truss’s conference speech dominates front pages. The Guardian leads with “Truss delivers a new common enemy to fractured Tory party” and the Times has “U-turn or face election wipeout, Truss warned”.

The Mail’s splash reads “Defiant Liz takes fight to her critics” while the Express says “Truss: Stormy days ahead … but I’ve got your back”. The i newspaper leads with “Cabinet rebellion growing” alongside a picture of Truss.

The Telegraph splash reads “Income taxes to rise by £21bn despite Budget” while the FT leads with “US hits out at oil cuts that ‘align Opec with Russia’”. The Mirror has “Stop the killer dogs” and the Sun goes with “City Wag: Manc food is manky”.

Today in Focus

Liz Truss delivers her speech during the Conservative Party’s annual conference
Liz Truss delivers her speech during the Conservative Party’s annual conference. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Is Liz Truss already fighting to save her premiership?

It’s been four weeks since Liz Truss became prime minister and her policies are already facing criticism from senior Conservative MPs. Rafael Behr reports on whether she’ll be able to hold the party together.

Cartoon of the day | Henny Beaumont

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

In 2016, when Lucy Ireland Gray was standing outside her local Sainsbury’s in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, she spotted a scrap of paper on the pavement with an eye doodled on it. It turned out to be a shopping list. Finding herself strangely fascinated by this voyeuristic insight into other people’s ordinary lives, she has been picking them up ever since.

Gary now has a collection of almost 300, and loves their “endearing little nuances”.

“I’m naturally nosy,” she says. “I enjoy imagining the little stories behind the lists, filling in the gaps … It’s the poetry of the everyday, open to interpretation.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.