As war rages in Ukraine, Somalia starves

Kenneth R. Rosen


In this edition, war in Ukraine and drought leaves Somalia on the edge of famine and complicates humanitarian aid efforts.

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The plots are small and shallow and litter the arid desert moonscape. They represent an unpalatable reality: These are Somalia’s children, buried in unmarked graves across the desert or outside the camps for internally displaced people in the south of the country, where half the population faces acute food insecurity. An ongoing drought has left millions of Somalians in danger of imminent starvation.

“Famine is at the door,” the UN humanitarian affairs chief Martin Griffiths said in September 2022. And just days ago, the World Health Organization said that about 1.8 million Somalian children under five (that’s over half the total number of kids under five in the country) are likely to suffer acute malnutrition until June, with all the accompanying development risks.  

Somalia imports over 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. The war in Ukraine has made it next to impossible to both get enough wheat and to afford it. It has also monopolized public attention and funding in Europe. At the same time, for two and a half years, the biannual rainy season has not arrived, shriveling up crops in the nation’s worst drought in more than 40 years.  

Climate change, together with the effects of Russia’s invasion on inflation and food supply, has pushed already vulnerable countries such as Somalia to the brink of catastrophe.


The cost of food in Somalia reached record levels before the Ukraine war and has risen ever since. The price of Plumpy’Nut, the nutritious food paste distributed by aid organizations, increased from $50 per 15 kilograms (about 33 lbs) to $130, largely because of transportation costs. When water has to be trucked away from ports to camps inland a global rise in gas prices means less water reaches vulnerable populations. Water shortages have triggered spikes in cholera cases and infectious diseases. 

Five gallons of water cost residents at the resettlement camps four cents, double what it was a year ago, before the war began. “The inflation trends create barriers for populations to be able to afford and meet their food security needs. For the aid that’s still coming in, the coverage is constantly reduced,” said Shashwat Saraf, the emergencies director for East Africa at the International Rescue Committee. “We all know there is a massive dependence on the importation of food, oil, fuel, meat, and if the grains don’t come in, then the prices will increase even more than they are.”

Drought, economic instability and an ongoing conflict between the Somalian government and the jihadist group al-Shabab have created a cross-border crisis that alone impacts more than 7.7 million people in Somalia, or half the country’s population.

The war in Ukraine exacerbated an already fragile situation across the Horn of Africa. In December 2022, UNICEF estimated that 5.1 million children would need humanitarian assistance this year and appealed for $272.3 million to expand operations in the country and bring emergency aid to at least two million of those children.

But even that funding, experts and humanitarian aid workers say, would do less than it could a year ago as rising inflation means money only goes half as far toward securing food and water than it did before the war. “The support from UNICEF is not enough,” Abduqani Mohamed, the nutrition officer for a local aid organization told reporters last year. “All the efforts are focused elsewhere, especially on Ukraine. No one is giving priority to Somalia.” 

The humanitarian aid organization Action Against Hunger said in a recent report that “only 47% of hunger funding needs through the U.N. humanitarian system are met, leaving a hunger funding gap of 53%.” According to U.N. figures, some 80% of an appeal for $2.2 billion in funding has already been met, largely by Western donors. 


Food insecurity and donor fatigue spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have revealed the frailty of countries who rely on imports to feed their populations. The last time food was waylaid in Ukrainian ports, other countries shuttered their exports, too. “Countries close down so it doesn’t impact them,” Shashwat Saraf told me. 

Turkey brokered a deal to enable Ukrainian and Russian grain exports to resume. According to some reports, though, a significantly smaller proportion of that grain went to vulnerable countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia put together than a single rich country like Spain. Russia has used such news to win propaganda points. RT, for instance, seized on an article in an Austrian news outlet that claimed that Ukrainian grain was being used to feed Spanish pigs to produce jamon. At an economic forum in Vladivostok in September, Vladimir Putin said that “developing countries have simply been deceived and continue to be deceived.” 

Somalia is still not formally experiencing famine. But, as meteorologists expect the drought to continue through spring, Somalia is anxiously looking skyward. “We will have to wait and see how the rains play,” Saraf said.

On February 28, the U.S. announced the arrival of over 60 tons of weapons to the Somali capital Mogadishu to help the government fight al-Shabab. And the U.S. First Lady Jill Biden drew attention to food insecurity in the Horn of Africa during a recent visit to Kenya. Back in September, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy tweeted that “Ukraine continues to save the world with its grain.” It was a response to Putin’s barbed comments about where Ukrainian grain was being shipped.

“We will continue insisting that this whole affair with the export of grain and our food,” Putin said, “be directed primarily to developing markets.” He added that he would discuss with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the possibility of “limiting” Ukrainian grain exports to only certain destinations. The current Black Sea Grain initiative deal expires on March 18, 2023.

As people starve, the geopolitical brinkmanship continues.

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