Seasonal rains bring hope and disease to drought-ravaged Somalia

MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Heavy seasonal rains have started in Somalia, aid officials and residents said on Thursday, reducing the risk that the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa nation will plunge into famine.

The U.N. has warned that drought and conflict mean civilians in Somalia, along with South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen, face mass starvation without food aid.

On Tuesday, the U.N. said 1.4 million Somali children would be acutely malnourished this year. But it has not said to what extent the rains might ease the humanitarian crisis, if at all.

The rains began in parts of the country in the second week of April but by last week had spread to most areas.

The rains will allow farmers to plant crops as well as grass for the livestock that sustain Somalia’s nomadic families. But the long drought has already devastated herds and forced many farmers to seek aid in cities.

Moreover, the rains bring cold and spread disease, a double threat for people and animals whose immune systems have been weakened by sustained hunger.

“Rain has killed the weak animals,” said Hirsi Yusuf Barre, the mayor of Galkayo south, the capital of the semi-autonomous Galmudug state. “Now people and their remaining animals have water but there is no food and shelter. And when it rains, diseases break out due to poor hygiene.”

The World Health Organisation said last month that 25,000 people had been infected by cholera, and that number was expected to double by summer. The disease has already killed more than 500 people.

Ibrahim Hussein, 67, said he lost 15 out of his 80 goats during the drought, but 30 more died since the rains began in his home in the central Hiran region.

“The goats were very weak,” he said. “I am happy if I am alive.”

writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Richard Lough