The drought in the Horn of Africa could raise the risk of food shortages, even though some areas have also been devastated by floods, aid organisations have warned.
Since October 2020, the region has been in the midst of its worst drought in 40 years, with people in some areas suffering a sixth consecutive failed rainy season, while others have been affected by floods.
The Horn of Africa comprises Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti. More broadly, it is also includes all or parts of Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan.
Analysts have pointed to climate change as the cause of the unpredictable and damaging weather patterns the region has experienced in recent years.
Malama Mwila, a manager for Save the Children in the region, said that in parts of Ethiopia extreme rains have damaged roads, caused rivers to burst their banks and inundated more than 20,000 hectares of farmland, with more than 10,000 livestock drowned.
Yet millions of people continue to be affected by drought, he said, raising the risk of food shortages.
“We do recognise these famine conditions and they need to be addressed as soon as possible. Immediate action is needed,” he told The National.
“The situation is dire. In some places there could be slight improvements from the previous rain season, but the picture for the whole of the Horn of Africa is no better than it was last year.”
The key difference now, he said, is the severity of droughts and how long they are lasting, while the risk of flooding from severe rainfall is also greater. He said that climate change was “definitely contributing”.
A study published last month by World Weather Attribution, an initiative of several research institutions by the Red Cross / Red Crescent, warned that climate change was intensifying droughts in the Horn of Africa.
The region has two rainy seasons a year, and the initiative said the long-term trend was for less rain in the first wet season, which typically runs from April to June, but more in the second period, from October to December.
Since climate change has caused an increase in temperatures of about 1.2°C, a shortage of rainfall that previously would not have resulted in significant problems can now lead to severe drought.
World Weather Attribution estimated that droughts like those in the region now have become at least 100 times more likely, putting at risk communities that depend on crops and livestock.
This is not the first time the Horn of Africa has experienced devastating droughts. In 2011, drought caused a famine in Somalia, which is estimated to have caused the deaths of up to 260,000 people.
Victor Chinyama, of the Somalia division of Unicef, the UN children’s fund, said that there was an uneven picture in the country due to the wide variation in the amount of rain.
“It’s the issue of climate change in Somalia,” he said. “You have these uneven climatic conditions. You have too much of one and very little of the other or a combination of the same factors affecting different parts of the country in different ways.”
Drought-stricken Horn of Africa faces fifth failed rainy season
he said in some places, the rain this year “eased the burden on families” in terms of finding the water they and their animals depend on.
As a result, the need for Unicef to carry in water on lorries has reduced in some parts of Somalia, allowing the organisation to concentrate on longer-term efforts such as the drilling of boreholes.
Nonetheless, he said that an average of 40,000 to 50,000 children a month were being admitted to Unicef’s severe malnutrition programme in the country.
This involves giving children a peanut paste fortified with vitamins and minerals, with some youngsters needing to be treated in hospitals, often if they have other illnesses as well as malnutrition.
As well as food and water supplies, Unicef focuses on vaccinating children. About 60,000 in Somalia have never received inoculations of any kind.
While in some parts of the region the rainfall has offered some respite, aid organisations say it is critical that the international community continues to support aid efforts.
Mr Mwila said that Save the Children was facing “a significant reduction in funding” in the region this year with potentially “catastrophic impacts”.
“We are worried and we hope that governments and other international funding mechanisms step in and provide the urgently required funding,” he said.
Illustrating the effect that significant cash injections can have, Mr Chinyama of Unicef in Somalia said that funding from the US Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance in 2022 was a “game changer” that allowed greater efforts to identify children with severe malnutrition.
“Here’s an example of why it’s so important for the international community to respond quickly and to respond at a scale because then that allows organisations like Unicef to prevent a situation from becoming worse,” he said.
“Somalia is not out of it yet. We need to continue to sustain what we’re doing because the human impact of the drought cannot disappear in a matter of weeks, even a matter of months. The next crisis is only a block away.
“Right now we need to be doing what we need to do to prevent climatic catastrophes from becoming a crisis for Somalis.”
Offering humanitarian security assistance is often not possible in areas of the Horn of Africa under the control of militants from militant group Al Shabab.
Further ahead, aid organisations have said that the focus in the region should be on strengthening local markets and food systems, and ensuring that governments implement long-term programmes to ensure communities are well fed.
The Sudan crisis has put more of a strain on Ethiopia, as refugees flee their region for safety.
Faith Kasina, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the world body's refugee agency, said that between April 21 and May 8 alone, more than 16,500 people, mostly Ethiopians, had arrived in the Ethiopian border town of Metema from Sudan.
While this is only about a tenth of the total number that have fled Sudan — with most going to Egypt, South Sudan and Chad — the UNHCR said it was worried about the effect on the Horn of Africa.
“UNHCR is extremely concerned about the humanitarian impact of a large unplanned influx of refugees and returnees in the Horn of Africa including Ethiopia, [which is already dealing] with an ongoing dire humanitarian situation resulting from conflict, climate change and food insecurity, as well as an existing large population of refugees and internally displaced people,” Ms Kasina said.
“In addition and prior to this new emergency, all UNHCR operations in these countries were severely underfunded, significantly impacting our abilities to effectively deliver much-needed aid.”
She said that if the crisis in Sudan was not resolved urgently, more people would continue to flee in search of humanitarian assistance, “worsening an already dire situation in the region”.