In Ethiopia, this woman has lost all of her livestock to drought. Silvya Bolliger/ EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Flickr

As drought finally breaks in the Horn of Africa, what have we learned?

How should we prepare for climate-induced disasters – and who should pay for it?

In the Horn of Africa – the easternmost slab of the African mainland – five consecutive failed rainy seasons have taken a heavy toll on landscapes and lives.

The worst drought in 40 years has caused significant harvest failure, poor pasture conditions, livestock losses and human conflicts. Over 23.5 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity, and about 13.2 million livestock have died so far. Gender-based violence is on the rise, and more than 7 million children are acutely malnourished.

The imprints of this period will mark the region for decades to come – and climate change seems to be a major driver. Earlier this year, the World Weather Attribution (WWA) released a study showing that human-induced climate change has made events like the current drought “about 100 times more likely.”

Higher temperatures have increased evaporation rates, meaning moisture disappears faster than ever. The researchers found that the recent rainfall conditions “would not have led to drought at all in a 1.2°C-cooler world.”

While considerable amounts of humanitarian aid have been committed to responding to the crisis, most of this was deployed after the food security challenge had already peaked, and very little has been committed to building the region’s resilience to future climate-related challenges.

Among experts, the consensus is that we need to start responding sooner, and in a more sustained way, to climate shocks like this.

Our ability to predict droughts is growing in accuracy: in 2019, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) published an advisory noting “early warning signs of severe drought and a major humanitarian crisis” in the region – but funding was not forthcoming until the disaster was in full swing.

By deploying money, knowledge and action earlier, we can give people a chance to strategize for upcoming challenges. They might choose to sell off some of their livestock, plant more drought-resistant crops, or relocate elsewhere, among myriad other strategies.

Ethiopia refugee camp
A camp in Ethiopia for people displaced by drought. UNICEF Ethiopia, Flickr

At smaller scales, several attempts to this end have been successful. For instance, in southern Ethiopia, scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have been working over the drought’s harshest period with pastoralists and a range of partners, including insurance companies, to help them predict and respond to the changing conditions, with impressive results.

Using a smartphone app called KAZNET, they crowdsource data from groups of pastoralists, who are paid a small sum for each task they complete – from surveying neighboring households about their animals’ condition and their kids’ nutrition, to noting down prices at the local market, to taking photographs of rangeland conditions along transect lines.

This data serves to confirm information being collected via satellite, giving a clearer picture of how close a particular region might be to social and environmental disaster.

“This acts as a sort of early warning system, indicating when climatic factors are about to threaten pastoralists’ livelihoods,” said ILRI research scientist Kelvin Shikuku in a blog about the project.

But financing to scale this kind of approach out over the entire region remains difficult to come by, despite promises of ‘loss and damage’ funding for countries that have contributed little to the climate crisis. The three worst-affected Horn of Africa countries – Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – each contribute less than 0.1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

More funding is still needed for immediate life-saving activities like addressing acute malnutrition among children and pregnant and lactating women, securing food supplies, and replacing livestock. Medium- and long-term action to reduce climate vulnerability and risks is just as critical.

“Development and climate financing must be immediately unlocked to assist communities and governments impacted by this crisis to adapt to the changes they are already facing and become more resilient in the future,” said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a May 2023 press release.

“More must urgently be done to ensure that countries globally fulfil their climate financing pledges, and that climate financing is easily and rapidly accessible to those who need it most.”

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