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2011 famine in South Somalia: the role of the early warning information System

By Abukar Yusuf Nur – Nutrition Analyst, Ahono Busili – Nutrition Team Manager, Elijah Odundo – Nutrition Data Analyst, Joseph Waweru – Nutrition Analyst, Louise Masese – Mwirigi-Nutrition Analyst, Mohamed Borle – Nutrition Analyst and Tom Oguta – Senior Nutrition Analyst

The authors constitute the FSNAU nutrition situation analysis team.

The authors would like to acknowledge the following people for valuable insights and edits: Grainne Moloney, Anne Bush, Tamara Nanitashvili, Jackline Adero and the FSNAU nutrition analysts who collected the data during this very difficult time. Special thanks to Oleg Biluka, Leisel Talley and Curtis Blanton from CDC for their invaluable input and technical guidance on each and every nutrition survey conducted during the famine period. They assisted tremendously in assessing the data quality of all the surveys.

Finally, thanks to FEWS NET Nairobi and Washington colleagues, UNICEF and WFP Somalia colleagues, Nick Haan, Dan Maxwell, Peter Salama, Mike Golden, Epicentre and Francesco Checchi for their technical support and collaboration during the famine.

In July and August 2011, the United Nations declared famine in Southern Somalia based on the food security and nutrition analysis undertaken jointly by UNFAO/FSNAU (Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit) and FEWSNET. The analysis indicated convergence of key evidence on famine outlined in the Global Integrated Phase Classification of food insecurity (IPC)1. This was not a sudden onset crisis and this article describes the role and key findings of the early warning system leading up to that declaration.


Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 following a protracted civil war by opposing clans. The opposing clans unfortunately failed to agree on a replacement and plunged the country into lawlessness and clan warfare, with disintegration of the country along clan lines and smaller political regions.

The three major political zones are Somaliland, Puntland and South and Central Somalia. Somaliland, in the northwest, has remained relatively stable since its unilateral declaration of independence in 1991 with functioning institutions and a peaceful transfer of power via democratic elections in 2010. Puntland, in the northeastern zone of Somalia has, since mid-1998, been referred to as the Puntland State of Somalia and has an estimated population of two million people which include 140,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from parts of South and Central zone. Puntland is, in general, politically and socially stable but with sporadic incidents of insecurity. The rest of the country is what is currently referred to as South and Central Somalia and is currently governed by the Transition Federal Government with the administrative capital in Mogadishu. South and Central zones of Somalia are the epicentre of the current anarchy in Somalia, which has impacted negatively on lives, livelihoods and access to humanitarian support.

A sibling takes care of a newborn in Mogadishu amongst IDPs (July 2011)

The FSNAU in collaboration with FEWSNET, UNICEF, WFP and other partners provide evidence-based analysis of Somali food, nutrition and livelihood security, to enable both short-term emergency responses, and long-term strategic planning in food security and nutrition well-being. It was first established as the food security assessment unit (FSAU) in 1994 post 1992/93 famine, evolving into the FSNAU in 2000 with the integration of food security and nutrition projects. FSNAU works to develop the capacity of other agencies (both governmental and non-governmental) to collect evidence-based information and focus more on the overall analysis of the food security situation. FSNAU analysis also contributes to policy and strategy development.

Deterioration in food security and nutrition situation (2010/11)

In Gu (April-June) 2010, the food security situation improved in most of rural Somalia, leading to a reduction in number of people facing acute food insecurity (see Box 1 for livelihoods system overview). This was attributable to an exceptional Gu seasonal performance across most of the agricultural livelihoods, as well as improved livestock production in the country. The number of the urban population facing acute food insecurity also significantly decreased during this period due to reduced inflation, increased wages and overall improved food production in the country. However, during the following season (Deyr ‘10/11), there were clear signs of a worsening food security situation as flagged in the FSNAU and FEWSNET early warning system, in most livelihoods of Somalia2. This was the result of unusually below average rainfall caused by the La Niña meteorological phenomenon. The impact of this dismal seasonal performance was demonstrated in failed crops in most of the southern crop-producing regions, and considerable water and pasture shortages in most of the key pastoral areas of the country – reaching only 19% of average (Figure 2).

Box 1 : Livelihood systems in Somalia

The rural livelihood systems of Somalia (pastoralism, agropastoralism, farming), revolve around the seasonal rainfall pattern. There are four seasons in South Somalia: the hot and dry Jilaal (January-March), and Hagaa (July-September), and the cool and wet Gu (April-June), and Deyr (October-December).

The Gu and Deyr rainy seasons provide pastoralists with water and pasture for livestock production and sustenance, while enabling crop establishments and with it, increased labour and income opportunities in the agro-pastoral and riverine livelihood zones simultaneously. Whereas pastoralists reside in their regular settlements during the wet seasons, they out-migrate towards the rivers and other water points for water and pasture during the dry seasons. Agropastoralists in the south are more inclined to crop than focus on livestock production and, together with the riverine population group (pure farmers), are generally sedentary. Urban livelihoods rely heavily on the rural areas for food (milk, cereal, fruits and vegetables), accessed through purchase. Changes in rainfall pattern therefore adversely affect food access across all population groups, significantly impacting on health and nutrition outcomes.


These developments resulted in significantly reduced food production (cereals, milk and meat), which subsequently was reflected in increased food prices and a rising number of the population facing acute food insecurity in early 2011. Specifically, in Deyr 2010/11 a total of 2.4 million people faced acute food security, representing a 20% increase from Gu 2010. In the South, the rural/urban population in crisis increased by 64% from Gu 2010, reaching 855,000 people. The La Nina event continued further through Gu 2011 season.

IDPs migrate to Mogadishu (Shobelle region) in July 2011

Restricted humanitarian assistance and substantial constraints to food access (Table 1) were observed mostly in the south. The food security situation was further aggravated by the food price inflation, limited labour opportunities and overstretched social support. However, the camel rearing pastoralists were less affected in comparison to the riverine and agropastoral communities (cattle rearing) as they opted to out-migrate to areas with slightly nearer average conditions. Nonetheless, nationwide high livestock deaths, as well as increased pastoral destitution, were reported during this period, especially for cattle and sheep.

Table 1: Evidence of substantial constraints to food access by livelihood group, August 2011
Livelihood zone Proportion poor households Sources of food (poor households) Relative importance of food source (% of minimum food basket in the baseline year) Change in 2010/11 compared to baseline year Likely impact on Aug/Sept 2011 food access
Bakool Agropastoral 40% Own crop production 25% 88% decline in crop production Poor households only able to access 40- 50% of food needed for survival
Purchases funded by wage labour 25% 57% decline in Terms of Trade (ToT) Wage/ Sorghum
Purchases funded by livestock sales 25% 76% decline ToT in Goat/ Sorghum
Other 25% Net decline likely
Bay Agropastoral High Potential 35% Purchases funded by wage labour 60% 80% decline in crop production Poor households only able to access 40- 50% of food needed for survival
Purchases funded by wage labour 10% 82% decline in ToT Wage/ Sorghum
Other 30% Net decline likely
Lower Shabelle Riverine 38% Own crop production 75% 64% decline in crop production Poor households only able to access 40- 50% of food needed for survival
Purchases funded by crop sales 15%
Purchases funded by wage labour 10% 46% decline in ToT Wage/ Maize


Nutrition surveillance in Somalia

A wide range of indicators are derived from the nutrition surveillance system in Somalia: acute malnutrition, death rates, proportions at risk based on mid upper arm circumference, and nutrition trends at health facilities. In any particular season, the severity in level of findings by indicator ranges from Acceptable, Alert, Serious, Critical, Very Critical to Extremely Critical mostly based on internationally recognized thresholds. Convergence of evidence on the severity level of the findings is the basis for categorizing the nutrition situation in a given phase. Where representative nutrition surveys are conducted, global acute malnutrition (GAM) is the core outcome reference indicator.

An integrated analysis of the nutrition situation3 in southern Somalia from the Gu (April-June) in 2007 depicts varied nutrition phases ranging from Serious in Juba and Shabelle regions, to Very Critical in Gedo, Bay and Bakool regions. (Refer to progression maps in Figure 3). The maps show the variation and progression of the nutrition situation in the different regions of South Somalia (circled) between Gu 07 and Gu 11.

Source: FSNAU website. Note: To see the detail, download from

The main areas of concern highlighted in the FSNAU/FEWSNET early warning system from August 2010 were the rainfed agropastoral areas of southern and central Somalia where crop production was largely impacted by the poor rainfall, cattle-breeding pastoral communities in South-East Pastoral, all livelihoods of Hiran and Bakool regions, the entire Coastal Deeh livelihood, the Addun Pastoral, Nugal Valley and Sool Plateau. Most of these areas had suffered from consecutive seasons of below average rainfall. Therefore, the capacity to withstand the looming crisis was very limited.

The maps highlight the deterioration of the nutrition situation to Very Critical in all southern regions by Gu 11. The deterioration was mainly attributed to lack of access to food due to rapid increases in food prices, massive death of livestock, and limited access to relief food due to the withdrawal of humanitarian agencies for security reasons. The situation was exacerbated by disease outbreaks such as cholera, acute watery diarrhoea and measles in southern Somalia.

In South Somalia, the nutrition situation remained worrying from Gu 2007 up until Gu 2011 when the levels of acute malnutrition reached the peak, with GAM as high as 55% in Bay region. This increase was the result of the severe food insecurity described earlier that followed the poor rainfall performance in the area and shrinking humanitarian space since 2009, following heightened insecurity. In 2009 for example, international organisations operating in southern Somalia were compelled by local militia to vacate, leaving the communities with minimal access to humanitarian support. In addition, disease outbreaks, such as acute watery diarrhea/cholera and measles in an environment with extremely low access to health services aggravated the situation. At this point, the population’s general resilience to shocks that sustained the nutrition situation at Serious phase in some seasons seemed to have collapsed.

Early warnings and alerts from the FSNAU/FEWSNET early warning system were issued through 2010 and 2011) leading up to declaration of famine in July 2011. These are listed in Box 2.

Box 2: Chronology of events (early warnings and alerts) leading to 2011 famine declaration

August 2010:

FSNAU warned that though Somalia received above average rains, the gains made could easily be reversed given that the outlook for the next rainy season was poor. FEWS NET also issued an alert on La Niña and Food Security in East Africa. They projected that the impacts of a La Niña event from August 2010 could include significant February 2011 crop harvest deficits in south-eastern Kenya, Somalia, and northern Tanzania, depending on the severity of the La Niña event. Additionally, reduced rangeland resources (water and pasture) in key pastoral areas in the Horn of Africa between October 2010 and March 2011 and possible reduction in 2011 long rains agricultural production were predicted.

September 28, 2010:

FEWS NET issues La Nina Brief, indicating the likelihood that it would continue into early 2011 with significant food security implications.

November 2, 2010:

FEWS NET East Africa indicates that pre-emptive livelihood support could mitigate likely La Niña impacts in the eastern Horn.

November 26, 2010:

FSNAU issues a press release on the early impact of poor rains seen in Somalia.

December 16, 2010:

FSNAU preliminary analysis on the early indication of the outcome of the Deyr season performance indicates that that large scale severe crisis would sustain in most parts of southern Somalia given prevailing restrictions on humanitarian interventions.

January 26, 2011:

FSNAU issued a news release on the crop failure, severe water crisis for both human and livestock, following failure of the short Deyr rains, heightening fears of deepening humanitarian crisis in coming months.

March 15, 2011:

The FEWS NET led inter-agency publication issued an alert that the existent crisis following the October- December, 2011 drought was likely to worsen, based on below-average March to May rains forecast in the Eastern Horn.

March 21, 2011:

FEWS NET/FSNAU issue an alert: extreme food insecurity likely due to drought and lack of humanitarian response.

April 2011:

FSNAU issued a press release indicating that the country could slide into an even deeper crisis due to the combination of drought, skyrocketing food prices and constant population displacement from ongoing conflict. The prevailing drought had already displaced some 50,000 Somalis within the country, according to UN estimates. FSNAU, through the Nutrition Update publication, further issued an alert that the nutrition situation in the South was Very Critical. Further deterioration in nutrition status is expounded in July 8th, 2011 edition.

May 6, 2011:

FEWS NET East Africa alert: Poor performance of April rains brings major food security concerns in the Eastern Horn

June 7, 2011:

FEWS NET led multi-Agency East Africa Alert warns that households in the pastoral and marginal cropping areas face moderate to extreme levels of food insecurity due to the drought, deteriorating purchasing power, and in some areas, limits on the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

June 20, 2011:

FSNAU issues a press release as well as a Quarterly Brief focusing on Post Gu Season Early Warning. They highlight the deepening crisis in Somalia in the 2nd half of 2011 with food prices hitting a new record high, following the two consecutive poor rainy seasons.

July 20, 2011:

The United Nations declared famine in two areas of southern Somalia (Bakool agropastoral livelihood zones and all areas of Lower Shabelle) based on joint FSNAU FEWS NET analysis4.

August 3, 2011:

The agropastoral areas of Balad and adale districts of Middle Shabelle, the Afgoye corridor IDP settlement, and the Mogadishu IDP community, were declared in famine with an additional 50,000 people in the cropping areas of Gedo, Juba and pastoral areas of Bakool facing faminelevel food deficits.

September 5, 2011:

A joint FSNAU FEWS NET release on September 2011 reported that Bay region was facing famine conditions based on new nutrition survey data . In addition, the July/August Post-Gu seasonal assessment analysis reported that poor households in this region faced massive food deficits due to a combination of poor crop production and deteriorating purchasing power.

February 3, 2012:

The UN declared an end to famine conditions in Somalia but warned that the crisis in the Horn of Africa was not over and continued efforts were required to restore the food security in the region.6

The reference documents are accessible at and

Evidence of famine

A case of kwashirokor in Juba riverine

The movement restrictions in southern Somalia meant that implementation of nutrition surveys was remotely managed and most were implemented successfully. In July 2011, FSNAU conducted 18 representative nutrition (SMART two-stage cluster) surveys in Southern Somalia, covering the rural livelihoods, Mogadishu, and Afgoye IDPs. Sixteen repeat SMART surveys were conducted in August 2011to monitor the situation. There were data limitations for Bakool and Hiran regions identified by CDC in October 2011. However this was not a significant constraint for early warning purposes given the available food access analysis and the nutrition and mortality data from surrounding areas.

The July 2011 surveys indicated extreme levels of acute malnutrition across the south, with GAM rates exceeding the IPC famine threshold of 30% in all livelihood zones except for the riverine zones of Middle Shabelle and Hiran Regions. In some regions, prevalence of acute malnutrition exceeded 50% (Figure 4). Findings for the retrospective crude death rates (CDR) confirmed famine in these areas according to IPC thresholds, especially for Bay and Bakool agro-pastoralists, Lower Shabelle riverine and agropastoralists and Afgoye and Mogdishu IDPs where they exceed the IPC famine and WHO emergency threshold of 2/10,000/day (Figure 5). Based on the August 2011 survey findings, the CDR was at 2.11/10,000/day among Bakool agro-pastoralists. For Lower Shabelle, in the riverine and agro-pastoralist livelihood zones, the July survey findings indicated CDR of 6.12 and 4.29/10,000/day respectively. In the other population groups, the rates were lower, ranging between 1 and 2/10,000/day, indicating excessive deaths and a doubling or trebling of the FSNAU median rate of 0.7/10,000/day in Southern Somalia.

The July 2011 findings indicated significant deterioration in the nutrition situation across all population groups in the south from the preceding six months. FSNAU and FEWSNET analysis confirmed that the core IPC famine outcomes of food security, nutrition and mortality indicators had been met. Therefore, in July and August 2011, the UN declared famine inMogadishu and Afgoye IDPs, Bay and Bakool Agro-pastoral, Lower Shabelle and Adale and Aden Yabal districts in Middle Shabele (see Figure 6 Nutrition Situation Map).

Nutrition situation map based on the FSNAU Nutrition Situation Classification Framework and Food Security situation map based on the IPC.

Crisis population and response

According to the FSNAU and FEWS NET August 2011, post Gu 2011, a total of 4 million people were in crisis nationwide, of which 3 million were in the south. The worst affected areas were in Southern regions where most people lacked food access, with 750,000 experiencing famine level outcomes.

At national level, approximately 450,000 were estimated7 to be acutely malnourished children, translating to 30% of the 1.5 million Somali children. Of these, 190,000, or 13% of the 1.5 million Somali children were severely malnourished. The south was worst hit, and host to 336,000 (or 74%) of all the acutely malnourished children, 160, 800 of whom (84% of the national estimate) were severely malnourished.

Table 2: Nutrition survey results, July 2011
Survey GAM SAM Crude Mortality Rate
Bay agro-pastoralists 58.3% (52.1-64.2) 22.1% (18.2-26.5) 2.15/10,000/day
Mogadishu IDPs 45.6% (40.5-50.8) 23% (19.2-27.2) 4.02/10,000/day
Afgoye IDPs 46% (40.8-51.3) 24.7% (20.2-29.8) 5.68/10,000/day


In response to the crisis, the Nutrition Cluster in Somalia undertook scale up of nutrition services both through static and mobile nutrition centres:

Faced with severe food deficits, thousands of people fled from the southern regions of Somalia to neighbouring countries of Kenya and Ethiopia to seek assistance. According to UNHCR, an average of 10,000 new Somali refugees was arriving in Kenya’s Dadaab camps per month (at least 1,300 per day from June) while 5,000-6,000 per month people were arriving at Dolow Ado camp in Ethiopia. As of 26 June 2011, a total of 60,200 Somalis were registered in Kenya – more than a 100 per cent increase as compared to the same time in 2010. The refugees arriving in these countries were in dire situation with GAM rates amongst new arrivals in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya ranging from 30-40%. Three in five children arriving in refugee camps in Ethiopia from southern Somalia were malnourished8. In refugee camps in Kenya, more deaths were recorded among Somali children in the therapeutic feeding centres in the first quarter of 2011 than in all of 2010.

A case of kwashirokor in Juba riverine

Following the declaration of famine in parts of Sothern Somalia, substantial humanitarian assistance was provided to the affected population. At the same time, the subsequent Deyr 2011 rainfall performance was above average resulting in average harvests which mitigated the extreme food deficits and reduced mortality. The FSNAU-FAO and FEWSNET Post Deyr 2011/12 seasonal assessment results indicated that famine conditions defined by IPC no longer existed in Southern Somalia in February 3rd 2012, though nearly a third of the country’s population remained in crisis, unable to fully meet the essential food and non-food needs. With these results, the end of famine was declared by FAO in February 2012.

The information presented in this paper illustrates the availability of sufficient early warning situational analysis to trigger an appropriate response in a timely fashion. A SCUK/Oxfam joint briefing paper on the 2011 Horn of Africa crisis concluded that the scale of death and suffering, and the financial cost, could have been reduced if early warning systems had triggered an earlier, bigger response9. Securing the necessary resources to respond remained a challenge until after the famine declaration that brought significant assistance. However, even where there was a response, insecurity limited humanitarian access.

The well being of populations in Somalia remain extremely fragile due to a combination of multiple natural, economic and political factors, compounded by insufficient measures in place to mitigate loss of life and livelihoods. Close monitoring of the food security and nutrition situations is not in and of itself sufficient to protect this chronically vulnerable Somali population without simultaneous commitment to intervene early where early warning information indicates such a necessity.

For more information, contact FSNAU:

Show footnotes

1See FSNAU website:

2FSNAU Press Release April 27, 2011: Somalia: Drought Impact Intensifies as Rains Delay

3The nutrition situation classification is based on ‘The Nutrition Classification Framework’ developed by FSNAU in consultation with key partners invoved in nutrition activities in Somalia and in the Region.

4Press Release July 20, 2011: Expanding Famine Across Southern Somalia

5Press Release September 5, 2011: Famine Spreads into Bay region; 750,000 people face Imminent starvation

6Press Release February 03, 2012: Famine over yet 31% of the population remain in Crisis

7The Somalia Nutrition cluster approach of estimating the cases of malnourished children is such that the total cases of acute malnutrition, including those severely malnourished state, is obtained by applying the GAM and SAM prevalence rates to the under-five population for each of the assessed population groups

8FSNAU Nutrition Update, May-July 2011. Cross border nutrition.

9A Dangerous Delay. The cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa. Oxfam, Save the Children UK. Joint agency briefing paper. 18 January 2012. Available from:

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Reference this page

Abukar Yusuf Nur,Ahono Busili,Elijah Odundo,Joseph Waweru,Louise Masese,Mohamed Borle, Tom Oguta (). 2011 famine in South Somalia: the role of the early warning information System. Field Exchange 44, December 2012. p53.



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