No end in sight for flood-stricken Somalia

by Omar Valdimarsson in Nairobi

Flooded roads and tracks continue to hinder the delivery of emergency relief supplies to some 350,000 people affected by the worst floods Somalia has seen in a decade. Of these, at least 70,000 are children. UN projections indicate that the number of affected could reach 400,000 by the end of the year.

The floods are compounding what was already one of the most severe humanitarian situations in the world. After 15 years of armed conflict, tens of thousands of families are internally displaced in a country that lacks basic health services and infrastructure.

And the situation is not getting any better. The Shabelle and Juba rivers on the border with Ethiopia have now joined at Kamsuma where the Juba has diverted from its natural course, posing serious risk of increased flooding to the areas surrounding the convergence of the rivers.

Projections suggest that the El Nino conditions that have been in effect since September - causing massive displacement of people and destruction of fields - have a 92% probability of lasting through January 2007.

The Somali Red Crescent, supported by the International Federation and the ICRC, is significally scaling up its response in the areas where it has the lead role - in the Hiran region in central Somalia - to save lives: provide clean water and promote hygiene, as well as distribute plastic sheeting, blankets and other relief items. There are growing concerns in Hiran that the bridge linking north and south Somalia is about to collapse.

The town of Belet Wayne in Hiran is one of the worst affected towns. While water levels have somewhat receded in the last few days, a number of streets in the town are still under water. Some 70% of the population have fled to higher ground.

The remaining population lack water and in many places the water is stagnating and mixing with sewage - becoming a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other water-borne disease.

Outbreaks of diarrhoea have been reported in many parts of the country. Some 45,000 people in Belet Wayne and the surrounding areas are receiving drinking water and other items through the efforts of the SCRS and the ICRC airlift of supplies from Nairobi.

In a camp set up a few kilometres outside Belet Weyne people are safe from the floodwaters but their conditions are still horrendous.

"We did not receive any assistance", a woman told a group of SRCS volunteers and ICRC workers. "Just look around, we are 20 families (from my community) installed here, our children are sleeping outside exposed to mosquito bites. The town is down there, but we had to come here to higher grounds with our children, but look at all this, we need assistance."

"All of our houses are surrounded by water," she added. "We cannot go back to take anything including food. We don't have access. The problem we ran away from is still with us, we don't have pots to cook, no food, not enough plastic sheets. We are all displaced, we don't have anything, but we help each other."

The floods in southern Somalia have destroyed crops and farmland, disrupted food supplies and cut off entire villages from the outside world.

Hundreds of thousands of people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In some areas, people are sitting on dykes, completely surrounded by water, still lacking shelter and drinking water, despite relentless efforts by the Somali Red Crescent and its partners to bring aid to the needy.

The floods, that also affect Kenya and Ethiopia, began in late October and have seriously increased the food insecurity brought by the drought earlier this year. In many areas, the soil was so dry that it could not absorb the rainwater.

The few crops that survived the drought are now destroyed by the flooding. It has been reported that crocodiles unleashed by raging waters have devoured at least 24 people along the rivers.

Since October, the rains in Somalia have been 300-600 per cent above normal levels. The rains coincided with the start of the second "dyer" crop season, which accounts for some 20 to 30 percent of the annual cereal production. Floods washed away recently planted crops and seed distributions will be necessary for replanting once the waters recede.

In pastoral areas, "dyer rains" constitute the main rainy season and, despite the severe damage to infrastructure and livestock losses, the heavy rains will replenish water resources and regenerate pastures after last year's severe drought.

"Our biggest challenge continues to be access, both due to the ongoing conflict and flooded roads," says Ed Cooper, the International Federation's Head of delegation for Somalia, "which means that more needs are constantly being identified as we are able to access new areas. In addition there is a high risk for outbreaks of malaria and other water-borne diseases," he adds.

The Somali Red Crescent is one of the few local organizations that have managed to strengthen its capacity during the years of the conflict. The society has branches with active volunteers and a well-established health programme in all the most heavily affected regions of Hiran, Lower and Middle Shabelle, Middle and Lower Juba, and Gedo.

Volunteers are already engaged in rescue activities for people cut off by flood waters and in distribution of relief items in partnership with ICRC, often using boats to reach otherwise inaccessible people for rescue and assistance. Over the last few weeks, SRCS clinics have mobilizing teams formed by two volunteers (trained in malaria and diarrhea interventions) to visit villages around the clinics.

The International Federation is bolstering the SRCS health preparedness and response capacity by providing New Emergency Health kits for use by the SRCS clinics situated along the flood affected areas. Medical items have been pre-positioned with SRCS by the Federation in preparedness for outbreaks of acute diarrhoeal diseases.