The Horn of Africa drought: On the verge of a humanitarian crisis

June 1, 2022
Written by Emma Kelly

There is a lot going on in the news agenda, and not everything will get the screen time and column inches it deserves. But there is a crisis in the Horn of Africa that desperately requires and deserves our attention and action.

The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing its most severe drought in 40 years. A staggering 15 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia — most of whom are already living in extreme poverty — are acutely food-insecure. This year, experts predict that 5.5 million children across these same three countries will be acutely malnourished, with more than 1.6 million expected to be severely acutely malnourished. Famine is a very real possibility in Somalia.

Regrettably, this situation could have been averted had global leaders, the international community, and donors paid heed to the early warning signs and concerns voiced by aid agencies over the past year.

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A history of drought

Sadly, the Horn of Africa is no stranger to these devastating conditions. In 2011, severe drought affected 13 million people across the region, with conflict-torn Somalia suffering the most. In July of that year, famine was declared in Somalia.  260,000 people died; half of them children under five.

A slow response to the crisis was criticised as donors and leaders failed to act on famine warnings as early as 2010, with 3.7 million people at the time experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity. In 2017, East Africa dodged a famine thanks to improved responses. But it seems that history is repeating itself.

This current drought has been induced by La Niña. This atmospheric phenomenon causes ocean surface temperatures to cool down as winds strengthen and blow warm water towards the west, and causes either heavy rainfall or drought, depending on the geographical location. La Niña is not an effect of global warming, but climate change has meant that the reliability of La Niña-induced rains has decreased in recent years. The Horn of Africa has now experienced three consecutive failed rainy seasons, with a predicted fourth failed rainy season expected to have devastating consequences.

A bad situation made even worse

Most people in the Horn of Africa are farmers, relying on the land and their livestock to survive. So when drought strikes, there is an immediate impact on their ability to work and feed their families.

For example, in Kenya, a drought emergency has been declared with between 80% and 90% of reservoirs and dams drying up in the northwest county of Turkana, one of the hottest and driest counties in the country. Here, lakeside communities can no longer survive on fishing, while pastoralists are losing their livestock.

Woman with goat herd outside her home in Turkana, northern Kenya

Ng’ikario Ekiru with the last of her goat herd outside their home in Turkana, northern Kenya. She is feeding her family with wild desert fruit and roasted animal hides as the area experiences the second drought in three years. (Photo: Gavin Douglas / Concern Worldwide)

It’s estimated that more than 1.4 million animals have died in Kenya alone as a result of the ongoing drought, with the government bringing in and slaughtering more than 75,000 weak livestock in order to share meat with more than 766,000 households in the most affected areas.

Arshad Muhammad, Concern Kenya’s Country Director, explains: “It’s very worrying when even camels, known for their ability to survive in extremely hot and dry conditions, are struggling to survive.”

The Horn of Africa’s dependence on agriculture would make severe drought difficult enough to weather, but a number of factors have exacerbated the situation. As previously mentioned, climate change has not caused the drought, but has made it worse and prolonged the conditions. This is despite the region being one of the least responsible for climate change, being responsible for just 0.1% of global carbon emissions.

“It’s very worrying when even camels, known for their ability to survive in extremely hot and dry conditions, are struggling to survive.”

Conflict in Ukraine complicates matters

While it may be happening thousands of miles away, the conflict in Ukraine is creating a perfect storm for hunger and malnutrition, posing a disastrous threat for the Horn of Africa. Ukraine and the Russian Federation are among the world’s breadbaskets, providing around 30% of the world’s wheat and barley. 36 countries import more than 50% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine — including Somalia — and this has led to food prices rocketing in this area, as well as in Sudan and South Sudan.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index, global food prices reached an all-time high in March 2022. On average, the cost of a local food basket in just the last year has increased by 23% across East Africa. Even worse, Ethiopia’s cost of a food basket has risen by 66% between February 2021 and February 2022. Somalia’s rose by 36%.

Fertilizer supplies and prices have also been impacted by the conflict due to Russia and neighboring Belarus providing one-fifth of the world’s fertilizers. Even if rains return to the Horn of Africa, pastoralists could struggle with next year’s harvest due to a lack of these key imports.

Goats in dry pasture

Livestock seek pasture in Tana River County, Kenya

“Utterly repugnant”

All of these shocks — plus conflict, locusts, and COVID-19 — have left the Horn of Africa on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. A new report copublished by Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Jameel University estimates that one person in the region dies of hunger every 48 seconds.

“Aid agencies have been warning of the catastrophic consequences from the moment the long rains failed last year across the Horn of Africa, and have called for urgent action from as early as May 2021,” says Amina Abdulla, Concern’s Regional Director for the Horn of Africa.

“Then, there was not much of an appetite for a response at a time when the situation was considered not to be severe. Sadly, we have now reached a point where what will shock us or get our attention are images of emaciated babies and animal carcasses. And that – I am sorry to say – is utterly repugnant.”

“Aid agencies have been warning of the catastrophic consequences from the moment the long rains failed last year across the Horn of Africa, and have called for urgent action from as early as May 2021.”

The Horn of Africa drought in Somalia

Severe drought is looming in Somalia, and the number of people requiring urgent humanitarian assistance is expected to escalate rapidly in the coming weeks. Already, the number of people affected by drought in Somalia has risen from 4.9 million in March to about 6.1 million in April.

As of late April, six areas in Somalia were facing the risk of famine in the coming months. Without sustained humanitarian assistance, more than 6 million people are facing severe to near-complete food shortages between now and June.

A Somali woman walks to Concern’s water truck to fill up her containers for her family in Odweyne in the Toghdeer district where water sources have dried up due to drought. (Photo: Concern Worldwide)

The Horn of Africa drought in Ethiopia

During the first quarter of 2022, the drought situation in Ethiopia escalated in scale and impact. An unprecedented displacement has left people and livestock in search of grasslands. The number of livestock deaths due to diminishing health conditions, fatigue, lack of water, and long trekking distances has also increased. Latest reports indicate that 23 million people in Ethiopia are now in need of humanitarian assistance across the country due to combined crises. An estimated 7.2 million people in the country go to bed hungry.

Amal with her children Nahwo and Rinwad outside their home in Salahad, Ethiopia. (Photo: Conor O’Donovan/Concern Worldwide)

The Horn of Africa drought in Kenya

Widespread livestock deaths, very low crop production and sharp declines in earnings to buy food are creating large food consumption gaps and high levels of acute malnutrition among millions of households in eastern and northern Kenya. An estimated 4.5 million people are in need of humanitarian food assistance, and 3.5 million are facing extreme hunger. In addition, tens of thousands of families are being forced to leave their homes in search of food, water and pasture, heightening pressure on already-limited natural resources.

Donkeys drink at an Oasis near the Chalbi desert in Marsabit County. Photo: Ed Ram/Concern Worldwide

The Horn of Africa Drought: Concern’s response

Concern is responding to this crisis supporting health clinics to deliver nutrition assistance and providing emergency cash transfers to affected communities. This allows beneficiaries to afford nutritious food to feed their families. Our teams are also repairing broken boreholes and shallow wells and vaccinating livestock against diseases in an attempt to keep them alive during the drought.

We are continuing our work to improve access to adequate and safe water, largely through ground water abstraction infrastructure and enhanced adoption of sustainable water resources management practices in both developmental and humanitarian emergency contexts.

However, the crisis in the Horn of Africa will require a $4.5 billion global commitment for an effective humanitarian response in the region.

Amina Abdulla, Concern Worldwide’s regional director for Horn of Africa, explains: “Shockingly, we are fast heading to where we were in 2011. Many of us will remember the scale of the drought in East Africa back then, the number of lives lost, and the length of time it took the humanitarian community to launch an appropriate response and help support communities to the point where they could recover.

“For families struggling to feed their children today in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, there is not a moment to lose. The response is already six months too slow. We must act now.”

Horn of Africa: Humanitarian Crisis