For the first time ever, Somalia is pushed to the top of the International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Watchlist, as a devastating drought, coupled with the effects of three decades of conflict, have created a catastrophic food crisis.

The IRC has produced an annual Watchlist for over a decade. Our Crisis Analysis Team consolidates 67 variables and reviews them alongside insights from the IRC’s over 40,000 staff and volunteers to identify the 20 countries at greatest risk of experiencing a significant deterioration in their humanitarian situations over the year ahead.

Somalia is in the midst of its fifth consecutive failed rainy season. By mid-2023, over 8 million people—nearly half of the population—will be living through crisis levels of food insecurity as the country faces an impending famine.

What does a food insecurity crisis or “impending famine” in Somalia look like?

Food crises do not happen overnight. By the time institutions like the IRC start talking about a “food insecurity crisis” or “impending famine,” a catastrophe is already underway. Immediate action is needed to avoid mass deaths. Children are already starting to die because their parents cannot give them enough food to survive.  

People are forced to make impossible choices. For example, they are having to skip meals, marry off children, or sell their own bodies in order to get enough money to survive. Children are also more susceptible to common diseases as their bodies are weakened from a lack of nutrition.

A new report by the Somalia government’s Minister of Health estimates that the drought caused 43,000 excess deaths in 2022. People are starving to death each day, and they are in physical pain from hunger. Their bodies cannot fight off diseases like diarrhea, measles or malaria, with children often dying at twice the rate of adults.

Why is Somalia facing an impending famine? 

This is no “natural disaster.” Human-caused climate change has increased the frequency and severity of droughts, decades of conflict have significantly eroded the country’s institutions, and the combined damage to Somalia’s domestic food production have made the country dangerously reliant on imported grains—specifically from Ukraine and Russia.

Somali woman stands among her goats, which have become thin from the drought
“If this severe drought persists, none of us will survive,” says 80-year-old Hawo*. “The drought will sweep both the animals and the people. Droughts are not new to me but to my experience, this is the worst I have ever seen.”
Photo: Horn Connect for the IRC

“Aside from a protracted civil conflict, Somalia is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years,” says Abdirashid Adan Mohamed, an IRC medical officer. “The drought has caused massive displacement, localized famine, epidemic disease outbreaks and malnutrition.

“All of this is happening against the backdrop of a deteriorating social safety net and a frail healthcare system. Together with my team, we’re working hard to provide critical health services to vulnerable communities.”

Humanitarian risks in 2023 

Hundreds of thousands at risk of starvation

While droughts occur periodically in East Africa, human-caused climate change likely explains the duration and severity of the current crisis, which has devastated crop production and made it near impossible for herders to find food for their animals.

In just one year, the number of people in Somalia facing the highest levels of extreme hunger has increased 91 percent. With poor rains forecast to persist into 2023, even more Somalis will be unable to access enough food.

Many will be forced to leave their homes to seek humanitarian assistance in urban centers or across the border in Kenya and Ethiopia. Already at the end of 2022, 3 million people were internally displaced, and at least 20,000 Somalis had crossed into Kenya.

Mother stands holding her 12 month baby, in Daryel Shabellow IDP camp, Somalia.
Owliyo, 40, with her 1-year-old daughter Hassen at Daryel Shabellow, a camp for displaced families in Somalia. Increasingly, the drought is driving people to camps and makeshift settlements as they seek assistance and safety.
Photo: Martha Tadesse for the IRC

Somalia is dangerously reliant on food imported from Russia and Ukraine

Somalia now produces less than half as much food as it did before the country collapsed into three decades of conflict. 

Ongoing fighting and the climate crisis have left the country dangerously reliant on imported food, with over 90 percent of wheat supplies coming from Russia and Ukraine.

Record-high increases in the prices of staple crops on the global market have made it even harder for Somalis to afford enough food for their families.

Conflict prevents aid from reaching people in need

Years of war have destroyed the systems and infrastructure that would have provided a guardrail against climate and economic disaster. 

Rather than cooperating to mitigate the impacts of drought, parties to the conflict have escalated it: in the third quarter of 2022, the country experienced its highest levels of conflict-related fatalities in five years. 

Humanitarian organizations operating in Somalia have limited ability to enter and operate in areas controlled by non-state armed groups, and an escalation in violence in late 2022 suggests conflict may continue to intensify in the coming year. There are reports of food deliveries being burned and water sources being poisoned or destroyed. 

All of this puts severe constraints on humanitarian efforts to address people’s needs, not just food delivery, but also medical care, water and sanitary health services, and more.

24-month baby, is held by mother while doctor holds a tape measure round her arm.
Jyju, 24-month old baby of mother Luley, receives service at Danwadag Health Center. IRC clinics in Somalia are seeing a concerning rise in the number of severely malnourished children under the age of 5 who need treatment.
Photo: Martha Tadesse for the IRC

Lack of funding is undermining humanitarian efforts

Year-on-year underfunding of the humanitarian response in Somalia has significantly hindered the ability of humanitarian actors to fully respond to urgent needs. The U.N.’s 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan is only 55 percent funded, approximately  $1 billion (USD) short. Sectors critical to an effective response to the crisis—particularly health and water, sanitation and hygiene—are funded only 60 and 28 percent respectively.

“The crisis in Somalia is far from over and is becoming more severe every day,” said Shashwat Saraf, the IRC’s regional emergency director of East Africa. “Famine is projected between April and June 2023 in Baidoa and Burhakaba districts of Bay region if more resources are not pumped towards the response.”

Somali woman collects water at well that IRC teams helped to install.
Fadumo, who has lived in Godobyar village for 30 years, collects water at a well recently installed by the IRC. For the last few years residents have coped with a severe water shortage.
Photo: IRC

How is the IRC responding? 

The IRC has been operational in Somalia since 1981, where it currently supports communities in Galmudug, Southwest, and Puntland states, as well as in the Banadir (Mogadishu) region. The IRC’s staff in Somalia are scaling up programs to address the current drought and rising food insecurity, and we are expanding to new areas to meet severe needs. We provide health, nutrition, water, and sanitation services; women’s protection and empowerment; and cash assistance to drought-affected populations across the country.

How can I help in Somalia?

Donate now to support the IRC's life-changing work in Somalia and worldwide. We are on the frontlines providing critical aid to crisis-affected people in more than 50 countries, including places on the 2023 Emergency Watchlist.

Read more about the top 10 crises the world can’t ignore in 2023 and download the full 2023 Emergency Watchlist report for profiles of all 20 crisis countries on the IRC's list.

*Some names have been omitted for privacy and safety reasons.

Learn more about the IRC’s Somalia response and get our latest crisis updates.