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Severe drought threatens 13 million with hunger in Horn of Africa

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Somali women and children stand outside temporary tents in the Dagahaley refugee camp near the Kenya-Somalia border. (File)

An estimated 13 million people are waking up severely hungry every day in the Horn of Africa, as the region grapples with a major drought caused by the driest conditions since 1981, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Tuesday.

Three consecutive failed rainy seasons in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, have decimated crops and caused abnormally high livestock deaths, while, shortages of water and pasture are forcing families from their homes and triggering conflict between communities.

“Harvests are ruined, livestock are dying, and hunger is growing as recurrent droughts affect the Horn of Africa”, said Michael Dunford, Regional Director in the WFP Regional Bureau for Eastern Africa.

Dismal projections

Meanwhile, forecasts of below-average rainfall are threatening to compound the already dire conditions.

The drought has impacted pastoral and farmer populations across southern and southeastern Ethiopia, southeastern and northern Kenya, and south-central Somalia, compounding increases in staple food prices and inflation as well as low demand for agricultural labour – all of which is exacerbating families’ inability to buy food.

And high malnutrition rates across the region could worsen if immediate action is not taken.

Lifesaving interventions 

Throughout the three drought-affected nations, WFP is providing lifesaving food and nutrition assistance to affected communities.

Additionally, its cash grants and insurance schemes are helping families to buy food for livestock.

To avoid a major humanitarian crisis, like that of 2011 in which 250,000 people died of hunger in Somalia, WFP is launching a Regional Drought Response Plan for the Horn of Africa.

It is calling for $327 million to meet the immediate needs of 4.5 million people over the next six months and help communities become more resilient to extreme climate shocks.

Ethiopia ‘drying up’

In Ethiopia, an estimated 5.7 million people affected by severe drought need food assistance.

Elamu, a mother of seven, told WFP that the drought has put her livestock “in danger”.

 “Our livelihood depends on them, so we are doing everything we can to keep them healthy”, she explained. “Every morning we lead our cattle to graze at a pasture far away, but even that area is drying up.”

The UN food relief agency is supporting her with cash transfers and providing crucial information about the upcoming drought.

Elamu is one of almost 3,000 pastoralist households who are receiving cash transfers, and one of 16,000 receiving early warning messages from WFP to help manage the drought in Ethiopia’s Somali Region.

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Bolstering assistance

Elsewhere, WFP is ramping up food aid for 2.9 million people in the Somali Region, providing 585,000 malnourished children and mothers with nutrition treatment; and preventive malnutrition treatment for 80,000 households with mothers or young children.

It is also continuing its livelihoods, resilience and food systems programmes to protect recent development gains and strengthen vulnerable Somalis against droughts and other crises in the long term.

Meanwhile in September, the Government of Kenya declared the drought a national emergency as an estimated 2.8 million people scrambled for assistance.

WFP has targeted more than 890,000 people in the worst affected counties for urgent food assistance, and scaled up malnutrition treatment and prevention programmes for women and children.

WFP will also extend microinsurance support for smallholder farmers there.

The situation requires immediate humanitarian action and consistent support to build the resilience of communities for the future”, underscored Mr. Dunford.

Severe drought threatens 13 million with hunger in Horn of Africa

Severe drought is killing livestock in the pastoralist community of Higlo Kebele in Ethiopia.

Looming catastrophe

At the same time, Mohamed M. Fall, Regional Director for the UN Children’s Fund in (UNICEF) Eastern and Southern Africa described the situation as “dire”, saying, “millions of lives are hanging in the balance”. 

“The needs are massive and urgent, and they are quickly outpacing the available funds to respond. We need to act NOW to prevent a catastrophe”, he spelled out.

UNICEF projects that the number of needy people in the Horn of Africa is almost equal to the combined populations of Greece and Sweden.

“Many of them are children, who are at even greater risk due to one of the worst climate-induced emergencies of the past 40 years”, he said.

Children at risk

Warning that “the region cannot cope with yet another perfect storm” – of  COVID-19, conflict and climate change –  he pointed out that children are being deprived of homes, meals, classrooms, and access to life-saving health services. 

Right now, nearly 5.5 million children in the region are threatened by acute malnutrition and an estimated 1.4 million by severe acute malnutrition, which can rise by 50 per cent if rains do not come over the next three months. 

“This is a crisis that requires a collective response – ensuring access to clean water, nutrition and safe spaces for children” – otherwise they will die or face needless suffering “with life-long cognitive or physical damage”, said Mr. Fall.

Multi-million dollar ask

To provide life-saving assistance, UNICEF is appealing for $123 million to prevent a disaster for children and their families till end of June 2022.

“Their lives and futures depend on it. We must act quickly. We must act together. And we must act across sectors”, said the UNICEF official.

Severe drought threatens 13 million with hunger in Horn of Africa

Women and children in a sandstorm in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

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