Horn of Africa climate-crisis-fuelled drought drives 22 million to hunger

A woman walking past tents in Somalia
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From southern Ethiopia to northern Kenya and Somalia, around 22 million people are at risk of hunger as the worst drought in four decades grips the Horn of Africa. The overall figure for people at risk has almost doubled from 13 million at the start of 2022, the UN’s World Food Programme said in a report on 23 January.

In the afflicted areas, the inhabitants – who mainly make a living mainly from herding and subsistence farming – are experiencing their fifth consecutive poor rainy season since the end of 2020.

The United Nations says 12 million people in Ethiopia, 5.6 million in Somalia, and 4.3 million in Kenya are “acutely food insecure”. Across the region, 1.7 million people have been driven from their homes by a lack of water and pasture.

Climate shocks

The Horn of Africa is one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change, and extreme weather events are occurring with increased frequency and intensity. The people there are among those least responsible for the climate crisis. Resource use linked to rich countries, particularly the use of fossils fuels, overwhelmingly to blame.

In other words, people in poorer countries are bearing the brunt of a crisis that rich countries created. Wealthy nations, along with their financiers and polluting industries, also continue to expand activities – such as fossil fuel exploration and production – that will worsen the crisis. Africa is a big target for such expansion plans.

Since 2016, eight of the 13 rainy seasons in the Horn of Africa have seen below-average rainfall, according to data from the US-based Climate Hazards Center.

The last famine was declared in Somalia in 2011, when 260,000 people – half of them children under the age of six – died of hunger. This was partly because the international community did not act fast enough, according to the UN.

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At that time, the region had encountered two poor rainy seasons, compared to the five in the current drought. Crops – which locusts readily devoured between 2019 and 2021 – have been wiped out, and farm animals have suffered a similar fate.

The UN’s humanitarian agency – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – estimated in November that 9.5 million cows had perished.

Humanitarian groups warn that the situation is only likely to worsen, with the next rainy season from March to May also expected to be below average.

Dire conditions in the Horn have been amplified by the war in Ukraine, which has contributed to soaring food and fuel costs and disrupted global supply chains. It has also diverted aid money away from the region.

Somalia: the epicentre

Somalia is the hardest-hit country, with the drought affecting more than half of its population, about 7.85 million people.

In December, the OCHA said the troubled nation was technically not yet in the grip of full-blown famine thanks to the response of local communities and aid agencies.

However, people were nevertheless suffering “catastrophic” food shortages, it said. It also warned that if assistance is not scaled up, famine would be expected in southern Somalia between April and June.

The OCHA warned that by June, the number of people at the highest level on the UN’s five-point food insecurity classification was expected to more than triple to 727,000 from October. This means that they have dangerously little access to food, and could face starvation.

Children in danger

According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), almost two million children across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia require urgent treatment for severe acute malnutrition, the deadliest form of hunger.

It said in September 2022 that 730 children had died between January and July in nutrition centres in Somalia, but that the real numbers were likely much higher.

Lacking water, milk, and food, and often living in poor conditions, the youngest become so weak they are vulnerable to diseases such as measles and cholera, and their long-term growth can be restricted. Some 2.7 million children have also stopped going to school, it said.

Appeals for aid

Xavier Joubert, Ethiopia director for the British charity Save the Children, said:

There is no end in sight for the hunger crisis and hope is slowly fizzling out

“There’s no doubt that the need has grown to an enormous scale,” he said, adding that more funds were urgently required.

Currently only 55.5% of the $5.9bn sought by the United Nations to tackle the crisis has been funded.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Featured image via EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr, cropped to 770×403, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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