Drought in the Horn of Africa: Worst in 40 Years

The Horn of Africa (HoA) is once again being battered by climate change induced drought, with the UN report, over “20 million people, and at least 10 million children facing severe drought conditions.”

Desperately needed support from UN agencies (World Food Programme (WFP), UNHCR and UNICEF) is limited due to lack of donations from member states. WFP have been forced to halve food rations due to the “lowest levels of funding on record”. Leading to what UNICEF describes as a “humanitarian catastrophe……. Urgent aid is needed to prevent parts of the region sliding into famine.” The disruption caused to supply chains and food production by the war in Ukraine is adding to the crisis, dramatically increasing food prices and limiting availability.

The region’s agriculture has been decimated by year on year rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall. Food insecurity, in a region with some of the poorest people in the world, is intensifying with the threat of famine looming, and food prices have sky rocketed. Livestock have perished – in Ethiopia alone 2.1 million livestock have died and 22 million are at risk, emancipated with little or no milk production – the primary source of nutrition for young children.

Child malnutrition is increasing and huge numbers of people are being displaced. Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea are all impacted by the most severe drought in forty years.

The effect on rural communities, and children specifically, is devastating. UNICEF estimate 2 million children are in need of treatment for “severe acute malnutrition,” particularly in Ethiopia and in the arid lands of Northern Kenya and Somalia, where the drought is most severe.

As well as decimating food production, drought is intensifying the water crisis in the area – with, the UN say, 8.5 million people (including 4.2 million children) facing water shortages. In Ethiopia, where around 60 per cent of the population (roughly 70 million) do not have access to clean drinking water with or without a drought, the situation is dire. Streams, wells and ponds, that people living in remote areas rely on, are either drying up or are completely parched. Such sterile water sources become contaminated by animal and human waste, increasing the risk of water borne diseases, cholera and diarrhea, which are the leading causes of death among children under five in the country; cases of measles have also been increasing at alarming rates in Ethiopia and Somalia, resulting in some cases in deaths.

Desperate families are being driven to extreme measures to try to survive, with hundreds of thousands leaving their homes in search of food, water, fresh pasture for animals and assistance. This is creating and intensifying numerous issues: Access to health care, education and protection/reproductive services is made difficult, or impossible. Children are forced out of school – approximately 1.1 million; schools close (in a region overflowing with children where 15 million children are already not in school); girls and women are made more vulnerable to physical coercion, sexual/child labor and forced marriage; displacement of persons explodes. Already a massive problem throughout the region, specifically in Ethiopia, where, according to UNHCR (as of March 2022) “an estimated 5,582,000 persons” were internally displaced due to armed conflict and natural disasters.

“Natural” disaster no longer natural

As the world heats up due to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) pouring into the lower atmosphere, the inevitability of extreme weather patterns including drought increases.

Like forest fires, heat waves and monsoon rains, drought was historically regarded as a “natural disaster”, but the frequency and intensity of such events is no longer “natural” and must now be understood to be man-made. Far from being freak happenings, such catastrophic climate explosions are becoming commonplace, and despite producing virtually none of the poisons that are driving climate change, those most affected are the poorest people in the poorest countries or regions.

The seed of the deadly drought in the HoA was planted and fed by the behavior of people in the US, in Europe, Japan and other rich countries. It is the materialistic lifestyles of wealthy developed nations (and disproportionately the richest people within such countries), rooted in irresponsible consumerism (including diets centered around animal food produce), that has caused and is perpetuating the environmental crisis. But to their utter shame the governments of such nations refuse to honor their debt, their responsibility to clean up the mess. On the contrary, because economic health is dependent on rapacious consumption, they continue to promote modes of living that are deepening the crisis.

Commitments made 12 years ago in 2009 by rich nations to give 100 billion USD a year to developing countries are yet to be fulfilled. In 2019 a high of 79.6 billion USD was reached, 71% of which was in the form of loans. Loans – for some of the poorest nations in the world, to mitigate the impact of climate change that they haven’t caused; loans that enable donor nations political and economic influence, perpetuating post-colonial exploitation and control, and ensuring Sub-Saharan Africa remains impoverished, and, more or less enslaved.

Imperial powers have outsourced the most severe effects of climate change; they either refuse to act at all or offer limited support with strings to countries and regions most at risk. At the V20 Climate Vulnerable Finance Summit in July 2021, heads of state demanded that higher income nations do more to meet their promises and called for grants not loans. UN Secretary General, António Guterres said that in order to “rebuild trust, developed countries must clarify now how they will effectively deliver $100 billion in climate finance annually to the developing world, as was promised over a decade ago.” But four months later at COP 26 in Glasgow, where climate finance was a primary issue under consideration, once again the rich nations failed. Failed to honor their word, failed to act responsibly in the interests of poorer nations, failed to stand for the collective good and the health of the planet. Shameful, but predictable. Politicians cannot be and, in fact, are not trusted; national and international climate pledges should be legally binding and enforceable.

Climate change and the environmental emergency more broadly is a global crisis; as such, it requires a global approach. This has been said many times, and yet national self-interest and political weakness continue to dominate the policies and priorities of western governments/politicians. If this crisis, which is the greatest issue humanity has ever faced, is to be met, and healing is to begin in earnest, this narrow nationalistic approach must change. As with other major areas of concern – armed conflict, inequality, displacement of persons, poverty – united, coordinated global policies and a powerful United Nations (UN) are urgently needed, but the single most significant change that is required is a fundamental shift in attitudes; a move away from tribalism, competition and division to cooperation and unity. A recognition, not intellectually or theoretically, but actually, that humanity is one, that we form part of a collective life that is the planet.

As the UN has said the men women and children in the Horn of Africa whose lives are being ravaged by drought need “the world’s attention and action, now.” Sustained action rooted in the realization of our individual and collective environmental responsibility. This requires governments to honor commitments: the $100m billion mitigation fund (as grants not loans), and making up the cumulative shortfall; it means funding the UN properly so emergency humanitarian aid can be supplied to those currently affected by drought in the HoA; it means supporting countries most at risk of man-made climate change in drawing up plans and initiating short and long term projects to minimize where possible the social and economic impact of extreme weather events; and individually, it means living thoughtful, conscious lives, in which the effect on the natural world is at the forefront of daily decisions, including diet, shopping and travel. It is our world, the people displaced by drought in Ethiopia and Somalia are our brethren, and we are all responsible for them.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.