6 min.

Hunger in the Horn: East Africa needs rain


East Africa is no stranger to water crises. The disaster of 2010-2011 saw more than 260,000 people die due to consecutive droughts and half of them were children. Now, like then, a series of failed rainy seasons have led to a lack of potable water, which has, in turn, devastated communities reliant on agriculture and livestock. It has also increased the risk of diseases like cholera. In the wake of food insecurity and the depletion of an alarming 95% of water sources in some regions, people have begun to travel far and wide searching for pasture and water–a perilous enterprise for women. As of January 2022, the southern pastoral areas of Ethiopia, northwest Kenya, and south-central Somalia have been bearing the brunt of the failed rainy seasons. Ethiopia has been particularly impacted by a combination of drought and regional conflict. The most affected areas are the lowlands of Afar; Somali; the South Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region  (SNNPR); and the southern and southeastern Oromia region.

Photo Credit: Failed Rainy Seasons Create Food Emergency in Eastern Africa October-December 2021 (NASA Earth Observatory)

Humanitarian assistance needs, which UNICEF hopes to address with an appeal of US$31.9 million, will surpass 2021 levels by nearly 40 per cent as the deterioration of pastures and livestock threatens livelihoods. Last year’s below-average rainfall, compounded by years of prolonged drought, has had a catastrophic effect on the animals of East Africa, notably cattle. Unfortunately, if the upcoming rainy season (March – April 2022) does not prove fruitful, livestock will continue to die in the hundreds of thousands. Rampant food insecurity and famine may be on the region’s doorstep. According to a multi-agency report, more than 120,000 livestock have died in the Afder, Dawa, and Liban zones of the Somali region. In greater-impact drought areas, the number is estimated to be over 220,500. In November 2021, the government of Ethiopia reported that herd sizes in southern Oromia have shrunk to an average of 50 per cent of what they were in 2014. In northern Kenya, 70 per cent of cattle have been reported dead.

Without water, there is no pasture, and without pasture, there are no animals, a reality that the BBC demonstrated in a recent moving account of the crisis. As of December 2021, Sabulu Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya has found eleven dead giraffes. The implications are broad as wildlife struggles to access water and turns to villages in their pursuit, opening the door to human-wildlife conflict. The drought has been overwhelming for nomadic pastoralists, whose livelihoods and wealth are inseparably linked to livestock. According to one pastoralist interviewed by the BBC, Saadiye Mahadgare, ‘We are at risk of dying because of starvation; we were relying on the animals, but now they have died because of the drought.’

Primary accounts from Oxfam International speculate that the severity of the current drought surpasses the drought of 2011, which decimated an abundant number of herds. Pastoralists, who travel alongside their livestock, have been the most affected. One pastoralist, Farhia Mohamad Geedi, described how she and her family were on their fourth migration in four months searching for pastures for her animals. According to Geedi, of the 100 goats and 100 sheep they owned, none has survived. Another family, the Mahmouds, suffered similarly. In six months, his family migrated six times, each time losing more of their livestock. He said that between disease, lack of water, and lack of food, the people will invariably ‘die like their animals.’

Photo Credit: USAID Ethiopia: Drought Impact in West Arsi licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (Nancy McNally/Catholic Relief Services) 

The devastation on livestock has proved dire for communities most reliant on these animals. According to The Guardian, the land of Saglo in Ethiopia is littered with the carcasses of cows, sheep, goats, camels and donkeys. Owners suffer the economic consequences of their losses. As more and more people are forced to migrate, the risk of conflict over resources also increases, adding to the humanitarian crisis at hand. Other economic consequences include declining livestock prices, rising food prices, worse trade terms for farmers, and low milk production, thereby limiting potential income from milk.

Regional conflict further exacerbates the drought, which puts additional pressure on health services as people migrate or become displaced. Regional conflicts inhibit accurate assessments of the drought’s severity. They also place constraints on the ability of humanitarian operations to deliver critical supplies to crucial areas. The outbreak of the civil war in Ethiopia has disrupted agricultural activities, limited harvest, and further diminished peoples’ and livestock’s access to food. In the regions of Afar, Amhara, and Tigray, it has resulted in approximately seven million people facing severe acute food insecurity. In Tigray, where violence erupted in November of 2020, over five million need humanitarian assistance. Climate-driven crises have been dubbed ‘threat multipliers’ because they foster inter-communal conflict over scarce resources. With more than 13 million people impacted by the drought in East Africa, one concern is the intersection of food insecurity, water scarcity and war.

Photo Credit: Donkey Looking for Pasture (Geoffry Njenga/ILRI)

The proximate cause of these droughts is a weather cycle known as ‘La Niña’, which brings droughts to East Africa when the ocean temperatures cool in the eastern pacific sea. Unfortunately, climate change and the warming of the western Pacific Ocean have intensified the severity and frequency of these droughts. Before the turn of the century, poor rainy seasons occurred every half-decade or so. But since 1999, they are becoming a regular phenomenon. The failed, ‘short rain’ season of October-December 2021 marked the third consecutive failed season since December of 2020, demonstrating how ‘more frequent and longer droughts are becoming’, according to Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority, James Oduor. Predictions for the upcoming ’long rain’ season of March-May are not optimistic either, as present climate conditions point to yet another failed season in 2022. And while international agencies are mobilizing to deliver critical resources to key regions fast, the need for assistance is far greater.

With the threat of famine looming and countless communities at risk, Mohamad M. Fall, Regional Director for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Eastern and Southern Africa, has responded with a multi-million dollar ask. ‘The needs are massive and urgent,’ he said, ‘and they are quickly outpacing the available funds to respond. We need to act now to prevent a catastrophe.’


Further Reading:

Building the evidence case for scaling up drought risk financing in East Africa 

ILRI launches new drought index insurance for resilience in the Sahel and Horn of Africa project 

Assessing the impacts of natural disasters and emerging and re-emerging livestock diseases on Ethiopia's livestock sector 


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