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The U.N. says parts of Somalia may experience famine within months

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Somalia is facing a major food crisis. And the U.N. warns that parts of the country could experience a full famine by April of next year.

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The crisis in the East African nation is being driven by a prolonged drought, terror attacks by al-Shabaab and a spike in global food prices.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in the southern Somali city of Baidoa, which is one of the places that the U.N. warns could suffer a famine in 2023. Jason, what is happening in that city that makes these experts predict that there's going to be a famine there in the coming months?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Well, for one, the food situation is already really dire here. Baidoa is a city in southwestern Somalia. It's, you know, surrounded by areas controlled by al-Shabaab militants. And it's become a magnet for people who are fleeing from areas where crops have failed repeatedly over the last two years. People are showing up destitute. And now you've got hundreds of thousands of them. They're living in these makeshift camps on the edges of the city. They came hoping for international food aid. But many I've talked to here say that, that aid is incredibly limited if they're getting it at all.

So people are describing begging or gathering sticks to just sell as firewood to survive, you know? And I'm hearing from people that there's nothing even to go back to in their villages. Their crops have failed. Even their goats are dead. I mean, goats that can survive on just about anything, they're dying because there's no vegetation on the lands that they usually graze on. And aid groups are saying that more desperate, hungry people are showing up at these camps every day.

MARTÍNEZ: How much, Jason, are the terror attacks - how much of an impact are they having on the current food crisis?

BEAUBIEN: You know, a lot. And in particular because al-Shabaab is controlling a lot of the rural areas that have been hit the hardest by this drought. And al-Shabaab has banned international food aid. And it actually attacks relief agencies as they try to deliver it. Al-Shabaab remains incredibly powerful in this part of Somalia. And they actually control all of the roads into Baidoa. So even for aid agencies, they can only get their stuff in here by plane. And it's making things incredibly difficult.

MARTÍNEZ: And it's got to be, also, really difficult for these relief groups to operate there, to actually do things.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, exactly. You know, in the midst of this dire food crisis, in which children are already starving, children are already dying here, getting more food aid in has become just this incredibly complex process. Somalia is already one of the poorest countries in the world. Now they're in the midst of the worst drought they've had in 40 years. And it isn't like, you know, the Somali government simply has stockpiles of grain just sitting around in warehouses in Mogadishu. Any surge in food that's going to come into this country, it has to come in from outside. Yet, al-Shabaab is battling against that.

At the same time, you've got the war in Ukraine. It's pushed up the cost of grain significantly. Before the war in Ukraine, Somalia got 90% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Now wheat here is harder to get. It's more expensive. This is a situation, you know, that's just getting worse by the day, people say. Is it as bad as the famine in 2011 that killed a quarter of a million people here? No, not yet. But, you know, for a mother whose child is emaciated and starving, that doesn't really matter. And the U.N. is warning that this crisis is likely to deepen as less food is grown domestically and getting food from abroad becomes increasingly difficult.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Baidoa, Somalia, one of the regions projected to be facing a very severe food crisis in the coming year. Jason, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.