The Horn of Africa Is Facing Its Worst Drought In More than Four Decades, With Catastrophic Consequences
Communities in the Horn of Africa are facing the immediate threat of starvation, with forecasts indicating that the October-December 2022 rainy season is likely to underperform, marking the fifth consecutive failed season in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The October-December 2020, March-May 2021, October-December 2021 and March-May 2022 seasons were all marred by below-average rainfall, leaving large swathes of Somalia, southern and south-eastern Ethiopia, and northern and eastern Kenya facing the most prolonged drought in recent history, while the March-May 2022 rainy season was the driest on record in the last 70 years. The 2020-2022 drought has now surpassed the horrific droughts in 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 in both duration and severity and will continue to deepen in the months ahead, with catastrophic consequences.
An Unprecedented Emergency Is Ravaging Drought-Affected Communities
Across the Horn of Africa, at least 36.1 million people will be affected by severe drought in October 2022, including 24.1 million in Ethiopia, 7.8 million in Somalia and 4.2 million in Kenya. This represents a significant increase from July 2022 (when an estimated 19.4 million people were affected), reflecting the impact of the drought in additional areas of Ethiopia and rising needs in Somalia and Kenya.
Two districts in Somalia are at imminent risk of famine and at least 21 million people are projected to face high levels of acute food insecurity due to drought in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia between October and December 2022.
In Somalia, 6.7 million people will likely experience high levels of acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 3 or above) from October to December, including over 300,000 in Catastrophic (IPC Phase 5) conditions, while people in rural areas of Baidoa and Burhakaba districts and displaced people in Baidoa town of Bay region are at risk of famine. About 9.9 million people in Ethiopia are severely food insecure due to the drought, according to the Drought Response Plan. In Kenya, some 4.35 million people are expected to face acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 3 and above) between October and December 2022, according to the Long Rains Season Assessment. With the October to December 2022 rains projected to fail, food insecurity will rise in the months ahead, and between 23 and 26 million people will likely face acute food insecurity due to the Horn of Africa drought by February 2023, according to the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group (FSNWG).
Over 8.9 million livestock—which pastoralist families rely upon for sustenance and livelihoods—have died across the region, including 3.5 million in Ethiopia, 2.4 million in Kenya and over 3 million in Somalia, according to the latest FSNWG Drought Special Report. This translates to the loss of 120 million litres of milk, leaving 1.6 million children under age 5 across the region without a daily glass of milk, according to FAO, with severe consequences for their nutrition. The severity and duration of this drought present an existential threat to pastoralist communities in the hardest-hit areas. Experience shows that it takes at least five years for a pastoralist family to rebuild their herd after a drought. However, with many families having lost all of their livestock during this drought, and droughts becoming more frequent and intense in the Horn of Africa, some may be forced to leave pastoralism.
Food prices are spiking in many drought-affected areas, due to a combination of macro-economic challenges, below-average harvests and rising prices for food and fuel on international markets, including as a result of the war in Ukraine. In Somalia, staple food prices in drought-hit areas have surpassed the levels recorded during the 2017 drought and the 2011 famine, according to WFP’s price monitoring. In Ethiopia, the cost of the local food basket increased by more than 33 per cent between January and June 2022, according to WFP. Soaring prices are leaving families unable to afford even basic items and forcing them to sell their hard-earned properties and assets in exchange for food and other life-saving items. There are also repercussions for food for refugee programmes, which are already impacted by reduced rations due to lack of funding support.
Across the three countries, the drought is driving alarming levels of malnutrition for children and women. About 4.9 million children are acutely malnourished in drought-affected areas, of whom 2.2 million are in Ethiopia , about 884,500 in Kenya and 1.8 million in Somalia. This includes about 1.4 million children who are severely acutely malnourished, including 704,500 in Ethiopia1, 222,700 in Kenya and 513,550 in Somalia. In addition, an estimated 986,000 pregnant and lactating women are acutely malnourished, including 685,900 in Ethiopia, 115,700 in Kenya and 184,400 in Somalia. Across the region, many women have sacrificed their own wellbeing and nutrition to care for their families.
More than 16.2 million people cannot access enough water for drinking, cooking and cleaning across the Horn of Africa, including 8.2 million in Ethiopia, 3.9 million in Somalia and 4.1 million in Kenya, according to UNICEF. Many water points have dried up or diminished in quality, heightening the risk of water-borne diseases and increasing the risk of skin and eye infections as families are forced to ration their water use and prioritize drinking and cooking over hygiene. Water deficits have been exacerbated by very high temperatures, which are forecast to continue until at least September 2022. Women and girls are having to walk longer distances to access water—in many instances up to double or triple the distances they would walk during a regular dry season—exacerbating their potential exposure to gender-based violence and dehydration. Water shortages are also impacting infection prevention and control in health facilities and schools. In Ethiopia and Kenya, there are reports of an increase in pregnant women being exposed to infections—the worst of which have resulted in death— following deliveries both at home and at health facilities due to the limited availability of water.
The drought is increasing the risk of disease and having devastating consequences for the health of affected communities. All three countries that have been hardest-hit by the drought are responding to cholera outbreaks, with 11,500 cases recorded in the first eight months of 2022, including 9,700 in Somalia alone. Measles is also on the rise, with 20,500 cases reported across the three countries from January to August in 2022. Malnutrition and disease have a synergistic relationship, with malnutrition increasing the likelihood of falling sick—especially for children and pregnant and lactating women—while sick people become more easily malnourished, according to WHO. As the price of food rises, families may be forced to choose between food and health care, increasing the risk of people discontinuing treatment, including for HIV. At the same time, displacement can heighten the risk of exposure to disease, due to compromised living conditions, while also increasing the potential spread of disease, including across borders.
Families are taking desperate measures to survive, with more than 1.3 million people leaving their homes in search of food, pasture, water and alternative livelihoods, increasing the risk of inter-communal conflict, as well as heightening pressure on already limited basic services. Since January 2021, over 1 million people in Somalia have been displaced: some have migrated to near-by towns, joining existing camps for internally displaced people, while others have crossed borders seeking support or traversed dangerous distances controlled by armed groups and contaminated with explosives in search of work or humanitarian assistance. Around 20,000 people from Somalia have sought asylum in Ethiopia (16,000) and Kenya (4,000), including due to the drought, by the end of June 2022, according to UNHCR. In Ethiopia, over 345,000 people were forced from their homes between October 2021 and June 2022 due to the worsening drought, especially in Somali Region (175,000) and Southern Oromia (163,000). In the ASAL region of Kenya, pastoralists are trekking long distances to find water and pasture for livestock, leading to resource-based and inter-communal tensions and conflict and there are growing reports of people arriving into urban and peri-urban areas—including the sides of major roads—in search of new livelihoods and assistance.
The drought is having devastating consequences for women and children, heightening the risk of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse, and hampering children’s access to education. Risks of gender-based violence— including sexual violence, sexual exploitation, intimate partner violence and female genital mutilation—are increasing during this crisis, while services to respond remain limited. Female-headed households and adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to increased violence, exploitation and abuse. In Somalia, a 20 per cent increase in incidents of intimate partner violence and rape was reported between January and May 2022 through the GBV Information Management System (GBVIMS), correlated with the drought. In some communities, child marriage has reportedly risen, with families marrying-off young girls in order to lessen demands on their own resources and potentially get money that they can use for food and other necessities. In some communities, families have stopped sending girls to school, prioritizing boys as they cannot afford the school fees. In Somalia, the drought emergency has disrupted education for 1.7 million children, of whom 720,000—47 per cent of them girls—are at risk of dropping out of school. In Ethiopia, more than 482,000 children are out of school due to drought. In Kenya, more than 54,500 students in the 17 drought- affected counties are at risk of dropping out of school unless urgent multi-sectoral measures are taken to provide school supplies, school meals and safe and sufficient water.
Older people—especially in pastoralist communities—are also facing unique consequences due to the drought. Their role in caring for children has increased, as younger adults have travelled further afield in search of forage and food or migrated to urban areas in search of work. Some 88 per cent of older people caring for at least one child, with the average caring for more than five children. Many older people are skipping meals—with over half currently eating only one meal per day and 82 per cent going to bed hungry at least one night per week—and only 1 in 2 older people have access to safe drinking water, according to a recent assessment by HelpAge.
While resilience-building efforts across the region have made important progress, the frequency and severity of droughts in recent years, combined with the exceptionally prolonged nature of the 2020-2022 drought, have made it harder and harder for families to recover between shocks. In the past 10 years alone, the Horn of Africa has endured three severe droughts (2010-2011, 2016-2017 and 2020-2022). The 2010-2011 drought, combined with conflict and complex humanitarian access issues, caused famine in Somalia. The 2016-2017 drought brought millions of people in the region to the brink of famine, which was only prevented through rapid and timely humanitarian response. The increasing frequency of shocks in the region has meant that the vulnerable have little space to recover and bounce back, leading to an increase in the number of internally displaced people.
At the same time, many drought-affected communities are struggling to cope with the cumulative consequences of other shocks, including conflict, flooding, COVID-19 and desert locusts. Previously, many of these communities were hit by the extreme rains and flooding which struck the region in 2019, and which was one of the drivers of the historical desert locust outbreak which began in late-2019. The Horn of Africa has also been negatively impacted by the deteriorating macroeconomic conditions and trade disruptions related to the war in Ukraine, at a time when households are still facing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on livelihoods and income sources. In addition, millions of people in Ethiopia and Somalia are affected by conflicts, which may also hinder people’s freedom of movement as they seek reprieve from the drought.
Even if no famine emerges in Somalia, given the large number of people affected and the likely duration of the crisis, excess mortality during this drought could be as high as in 2011. Over 730 children died in nutrition centres across Somalia in the first eight months of 2022 and, across the Horn of Africa, there are multiple areas where global acute malnutrition rates are more than double the emergency threshold, heightening the risk of death