This mother of five children has lost over 100 animals to the drought. Mulugeta Ayene, UNICEF Ethiopia

East Africa’s drought is set to be the worst in recent history. Here’s an overview

Worsening climate extremes and conflict are brewing a humanitarian crisis as the world looks on

The African continent is no stranger to drought periods, when lower-than-normal rainfall extends across multiple rainy seasons or years. 

However, while droughts are part of the continent’s natural weather cycle, scientists have found that climate change – which is largely due to the burning of fossil fuels, industry and landscape degradation – is making them more intense and longer-lasting. Case-in-point: the current drought in East Africa risks becoming the longest-running in recent history.

Along with North Africa, East Africa normally undergoes both annual and long-term drought cycles and is particularly vulnerable to long and severe droughts. The current drought, for example, is induced by the La Niña weather phenomenon, in which the region experiences drier-than-normal conditions. 

But it also follows a succession of poor rainy seasons that began in late 2020, worsening its impacts. Last year between early October and late November, parts of Somalia received 55 to 70 percent less rainfall than averages from the past 40 years. The last major drought-induced famine in East Africa in 2011 killed more than a quarter million people in the country. 

So, what can we expect from the drought happening now?

This herder lost 7 cows and has come to a water pond to save his remaining cattle. Mulugeta Ayene, UNICEF Ethiopia
This herder lost 7 cows and has come to a water pond to save his remaining cattle. Mulugeta Ayene, UNICEF Ethiopia

Food insecurity and hunger

More than 13 million people are facing severe food insecurity due to drought in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, and around 5.7 million children from these three countries are expected to be acutely malnourished by the end of 2022. 

Due to a lack of water, farmers have seen their crops dry up, and cereal harvests are expected to be much lower than normal. More than 3 million livestock – central to the lives of pastoralist communities, who are typically accustomed to variability in the natural environment – have died in the region, which has caused a steep drop in milk production. Humanitarian groups have appealed for USD 4.4 billion to help these populations stave off famine. 

“There is nothing but hunger where I came from,” said Fadumo Ali Mohamed, as reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross. “People are hungry. There’s no rain. We left in search of medical assistance, but there is only hunger.”

Coupled with this, the ongoing war in Ukraine has driven up prices of wheat and other staple goods like sunflower oil. This has been devastating to East African countries, as Ukraine and Russia supply 90 percent of the region’s wheat imports. The recent spike in wheat prices already follows a steady rise since 2020 due to poor harvests in key exporting countries, and rising oil prices are expected to translate into higher food prices as well. As fewer East Africans grow their own crops, more people are susceptible to fluctuations in global food prices.

Local conflict has also driven food insecurity. Since 2020, dozens of clashes among farmers and pastoralists, between communities and from militants in the region have occurred over control of water points – crucial for watering crops and animals or for household use – or have targeted water infrastructure. Conflict and unrest over water has also broken out in recent years in parts of West Africa, which is undergoing a food crisis affecting at least 27 million people.

In a press release issued in November of last year, Kurt Tjossem, the International Rescue Committee Regional Vice President for East Africa, said that conflict in East African countries due to ethnic tensions and scarce resources “means that families who rely on agricultural productivity are not able to access the materials they need to harvest crops, while aid organizations are often not able to reach populations in need due to access constraints.”

A woman brings her sick six-month-old child to a UNICEF mission in a drought-stricken area of Ethiopia for treatment. Demissew Bizuwerk, UNICEF Ethiopia
A woman brings her sick six-month-old child to a UNICEF mission in a drought-stricken area of Ethiopia for treatment. Demissew Bizuwerk, UNICEF Ethiopia

Water and weather

The effects of the current drought go beyond just crop losses and hunger. In a press release, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNHCR) states that millions face water shortages, which could affect the prevention of infections and lead to many women and girls having to walk longer distances to fetch water for their families. And while parts of the region have been hit by the drought, others have been devastated by extreme flooding instead. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, over 17 million people have been displaced in the region.

The clearest way to put a stop to the rise of extreme weather and famine in the region is to halt global climate change, which will mainly require burning fewer fossil fuels and reducing landscape degradation. 

For now, though, aid groups are calling for international help to support families through the current food crisis – but meeting this need will be an uphill battle. The world is just emerging from two years of lockdown and economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, and global attention is now focused on the Ukraine conflict or elsewhere rather than on the humanitarian situation in East Africa. Available resources have been far outstripped by a soaring need for aid, leading over 70 percent of refugees that need assistance to not receive full rations.

“Refugees and internally displaced people are at the center of the food ration cuts, compounding a desperate situation for millions of people uprooted from their homes and often relying on aid to survive,” said Clementine Nkweta-Salami, the Regional Bureau Director for the East, Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region for UNHCR, in a press release. “More and more children below the age of five are experiencing high levels of stunting and wasting, as they lack the nutrients to grow and develop.”

Travelling far to collect water keeps this 10-year-old child from attending school. Mulugeta Ayene, UNICEF Ethiopia
Travelling far to collect water keeps this 10-year-old child from attending school. Mulugeta Ayene, UNICEF Ethiopia

The Global Center for Adaptation released a report last year that explains the strategies African countries can use to adapt to their new climate change reality. It broadly recommends that they mainstream climate change resilience into government policy, tap into the continent’s large private sector to drive adaptation, gather more weather and water data to improve disaster warning systems, and create more opportunities for women and young people. 

But the report also notes that a large funding gap – USD 265 billion by 2030 – for adaptation measures should be closed by international actors and developed countries, especially since Western countries are responsible for most of the damage due to climate change. 

“The growth in needs here [East Africa] mirrors what we see happening around the globe, and we implore the world not to turn its back on this region and, in particular, the extremely vulnerable communities of refugees who have limited access to livelihoods and rely on the WFP [World Food Programme] to survive,” said Michael Dunford, the WFP’s Regional Director for Eastern Africa, in a press release.

For the long-term, however, some have called for a development plan in Africa that reduces reliance on foreign aid. An editorial in The Guardian says that in contrast to importing much of their food, African countries should increase “food and renewable energy sovereignty” and spend more money on public services. 

Instead of spending foreign reserves to import food to the continent, says the editorial, African leaders could develop their agricultural sector and spur the manufacturing of higher value goods. This could lead to more resilience and food security when crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic or war inevitably batter global supply chains.




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