With landscapes parched, animals collapsing and dying, and people fleeing to camps with only the possessions they can carry, the drought in the Horn of Africa is already causing acute suffering.
Yet the situation could become much, much worse in the coming weeks and months, with the UN having warned this week that several years of drought, coupled with inadequate funds for aid, could put 20 million people, mostly in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, at risk of hunger.
Fears are high of a repeat of 2011’s devastating famine, also the result of extreme drought, when as many as 260,000 people died in Somalia.
“The drought itself is really very severe,” said Petroc Wilton, head of communications for the World Food Programme in Somalia.
“Somalia has suffered three failed rainy seasons with very poor rainfall. We’re now in the fourth rainy season. It remains to be seen if it will deliver the rain Somalia so desperately needs.
“The forecast rainfall is not yet sufficient to alleviate drought conditions. Things on the ground are critically serious, deteriorating very quickly.”
In Somalia alone more than six million people ― 40 per cent of the population ― are facing the risk of acute food shortages by the middle of this year. Save the Children says that 3.5 million people in Kenya and up to 6.5 million in southern Ethiopia are short of food.
The Horn of Africa is facing what has been described as its worst drought since 1981 and the indications are that this year’s April-to-June rainy season will not improve things.
Rivers have run dry, crops have failed and livestock has died, forcing many in this region of farmers and pastoralists to flee, some ending up in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).
The UN has predicted that as many as 350,000 children could die by the summer if the aid provision does not improve.
UN agencies and NGOs are in the region to alleviate the situation. Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund, has reached almost half a million people, almost 300,000 of them children, by driving in water supplies or rehabilitating water supply points such as shallow wells or boreholes.
Other UN agencies are also distributing water, including the International Organisation for Migration, which has distributed more than 33 million litres of water to 80,000 people in Somalia since the crisis developed.
The UN Development Programme is active in Somalia working on projects such as reservoir building and improving drought and flooding early-warning systems.
“It’s so severe because it’s slow onset. We’re working to avert a famine crisis … It’s [also] a water crisis,” said Victor Kinyanjui, chief of the water, sanitation and hygiene section of Unicef Somalia.
He said nearly a million people had migrated into settlements, but this raised the risk of disease outbreaks.
“There’s potential for cholera because the water supplies are contaminated,” he said. “We have people dying as we’re speaking, mainly the small children, who are extremely vulnerable.”
Resources earmarked for longer-term development have had to be diverted to emergency aid, while Unicef alone has a funding gap of more than $100m, having secured only one-fifth of the finance deemed necessary to prevent the worst outcomes.
Unicef, among others, is continuing advocacy with major international donors including the UK, EU and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The need for increased funds is, said Mr Kinyanjui, “immediate”.
Greater support for aid is critical, Mr Wilton said, because it was a ramping up of assistance that averted what would otherwise have been a famine in 2016 to 2017.
“The concern is this time around we don’t have the resources to scale up, so we’re desperately concerned Somalia is on the brink of a human catastrophe,” he said.
“We’re really looking at a very serious funding shortfall right now at the worst possible time. Right now WFP is looking at a funding gap of $192m, and that is just for crisis response — the immediate, necessary food and nutrition assistance … The broader UN is facing shortfalls as well.
“We’re having to make incredibly hard choices about how we use our very limited resources.”
The UN said last month $4.4bn was needed in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, but there are concerns that war in Ukraine is diverting attention from events in the Horn of Africa.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also made things worse by disrupting supply chains and driving up the cost of food, because these two countries account for about 90 per cent of East Africa’s wheat imports.
Wheat accounts for one third of the region’s cereal consumption, figures compiled by Save the Children show, and other foodstuffs have also become more expensive.
The WFP’s food assistance is primarily through cash-based transfers to individuals, which allows them to buy suitable food while aiding local economies, but further severe price hikes could make provisions unaffordable.
“It’s not too late, but we need these resources to scale up, because the need is increasing at a terrifying rate,” said Mr Wilton.
“In March, WFP distributed over 5,000 tonnes of food and almost $36m in cash transfers. We’re really operating at scale, but in the context of 6m people marching towards starvation or facing really critical hunger, it’s not enough.”
Another factor making the provision of assistance harder is a poor security situation, caused by the Al Shabab Islamist group, in parts of the region.
While climate change could be a factor in the severe drought the Horn of Africa is experiencing, there is no clear link.
Dr Caroline Wainwright, a research fellow at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, part of Imperial College London, said the Horn of Africa, as a semi-arid region, was relatively dry on average and so more prone to drought. It is subject to the El Nino Southern Oscillation, which causes low rainfall in certain phases.
“In recent years we have experienced several La Nina events, which have led to low rainfall over the region,” said Dr Wainwright, referring to a weather pattern that tends to cause drier than normal conditions in Eastern Africa.
“In addition, Eastern Africa is experiencing a warming trend higher than the global mean, which may also be contributing to increased aridity.
“However, a recent study has shown that impact of increasing local temperatures on agricultural drought in eastern Africa is limited.”
While the 2010/11 drought was due to two consecutive failed rainy seasons, Dr Wainwright said parts of the region were facing their fourth poor rainy season, increasing the drought’s intensity.
Climate models actually predict increased rainfall for the Horn of Africa over time, said Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Institute.
“The one thing that seems sure is that it won’t stay the same,” he said. “There are scenarios in which we will have to cope with periods of extended dryness followed by periods of intense rainfall., so you get droughts and floods in the same region with increasing intensity as a result of climate change.”