From southern Ethiopia to northern Kenya and Somalia, swathes of land across the Horn of Africa are being ravaged by a drought that has put 20 million people at risk of starvation.
A donor conference last week raised almost US$1.4 billion for the region, which the UN says is facing its worst drought in 40 years.
In the afflicted areas, people eke out a living mainly from herding and subsistence farming.
They are experiencing their fourth consecutive poor rainy season since the end of 2020 — a situation exacerbated by a locust invasion that wiped out crops between 2019 and last year.
“The number of hungry people due to drought could spiral from the currently estimated 14 million to 20 million through 2022,” the UN World Food Programme said last month.
Six million Somalians — 40 percent of the population — are facing extreme levels of food insecurity and there is “a very real risk of famine in the coming months” if conditions prevail, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said last week.
Another 6.5 million people in Ethiopia are “acutely food insecure,” it said, as well as 3.5 million in Kenya.
Across the region, 1 million people have been driven from their homes by a lack of water and pasture, and least 3 million head of livestock have perished, OCHA said.
“We must act now ... if we want to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe,” Chimimba David Phiri, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s representative to the African Union, told a UN briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, last month.
Experts say extreme weather events are happening with increased frequency and intensity due to climate change.
Dire conditions in the Horn of Africa have been amplified by Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has contributed to soaring food and fuel costs, disrupted global supply chains and diverted aid money away from the region.
UN Children’s Fund executive director Catherine Russell said that 10 million children in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in need of urgent life-saving support because of the crisis.
“Overall 1.7 million children are severely malnourished across the sub-region,” she said in a statement after a four-day visit to Ethiopia last week.
Russell said a lack of clean water was increasing the risk of disease among children, while hundreds of thousands had dropped out of school, many having to travel long distances in search of food and water.
East Africa endured a harrowing drought in 2017, but early humanitarian action averted a famine in Somalia.
However, in 2011, 260,000 people — half of them children under the age of six — died of hunger in the troubled country, partly because the international community did not act fast enough, the UN has said.
Beyond the direct and potentially deadly consequences on the people affected, the shortage of water and grazing land is a source of inter-communal conflict.
The drought also threatens the animal world. Livestock such as cattle are dying en masse, while in Kenya, there have been many cases of wild animals such as giraffes or antelopes perishing.
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