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Q+A: How bad is the Horn of Africa drought?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 8 Jul 2011 12:47 GMT
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(Updates last section with fresh information on aid appeals)

LONDON (AlertNet) - Aid agencies have come out in force in recent days, launching appeals for funds to help them deal with the impact of a severe drought in the Horn of Africa.

Many people seeing the adverts in newspapers and on TV will be wondering why it's happening all over again. And some might even ask themselves, just how bad is it? AlertNet has an overview.


The United Nations says the Horn of Africa is experiencing the worst food crisis in the world today, with over 10 million people severely affected in drought-stricken areas of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda.

That represents a 30 percent increase since the beginning of the year, and the number of people in need is expected to rise as the effects of the drought erode families' ability to cope. The United Nations says there is no likelihood of improvement until next year.

In the past five years alone, the east African region has experienced two other hunger crises. In 2006, around 11 million people were hit hard by drought, and in 2008-2009, the number affected topped 20 million.

Going back to 1984-5, the apocryphal famine, drought and conflict in Ethiopia killed nearly 1 million people.


Media outlets, including the BBC, and some aid groups have described the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa as the worst in 60 years. But it is worth examining this in a little more detail.

Over the past year, the eastern Horn of Africa has experienced two consecutive "severely below-average" rainy seasons, and in some parts of Kenya, drought conditions have persisted for longer, according to the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).

In mid-June, it released a historical comparison of rainfall in selected areas of Kenya and Ethiopia going back six decades.

The analysis showed that, out of 15 drought-affected pastoral areas of Kenya and Ethiopia, rainfall was below average for all for the period, with 2010-2011 being the driest or second-driest year since 1950-1951 in 11 of the zones. Historical data was too limited to include Somalia in the comparison.

FEWSNET pointed out that other droughts, including 2008-2009, were longer and in fact 2009-2010 was an exceptionally good year for rainfall.

"Nonetheless, the current drought is severe, and its impacts have been exacerbated by extremely high food prices, reduced coping capacity, and a limited humanitarian response," it concluded.  


Failed harvests have caused food shortages, and water is in short supply. Livestock, on which pastoralist communities depend, are dying from a lack of grazing land and water. Price inflation of more than 20 percent across much of east Africa has put what food there is out of reach of the poor.

To make matters worse, Somalia has been wracked by conflict for years, causing death and displacement, and limiting humanitarian access especially in the south, which is controlled by hardline Islamist rebels.

The drought has added to Somalis' woes, forcing tens of thousands to leave their homes and undertake a long trek to camps across the Kenyan and Ethiopian borders because they no longer have enough to eat, with an upsurge seen in June.   

In the first half of 2011, those factors combined boosted the number of Somalis facing crisis and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance by almost 850,000 to some 2.85 million, or one in three people.

Yet aid agencies have been operating in east Africa for decades, working on development programmes and responding to humanitarian emergencies. This begs the question as to why food crises keep happening on such a regular basis.

Bob McCarthy, regional emergency advisor for the U.N. children's fund (UNICEF), told AlertNet from Nairobi that local people are aware of the growing threat of drought, but often don't know how bad each one will be.

"(Humanitarian) systems have improved, with early warning and satellite surveillance. They have also got better at the community level, in terms of the work done to help people manage their water and food assets and improve the nutritional status of children," he said. "But the scale of this drought has really accelerated ... Even if we didn't have the Somalia refugee crisis, the drought is already causing serious disruption to many people's lives." 


According to a U.N. snapshot issued at the end of June, Kenya has the highest number of people in need of humanitarian assistance at 3.5 million, followed by Ethiopia with 3.2 million, Somalia with 2.5 million (since raised to 2.85 million), Uganda with 600,000 and Djibouti with 120,000. Figures are not available for Eritrea, although it also believed to be affected.

But these totals are not a ranking of which places are most in crisis, and the situation differs between - as well as within - countries.

For example, conditions where Kenya and Ethiopia border Somalia are particularly bad as hungry Somalis are walking for two to three weeks on average to reach overcrowded refugee camps. Between 30 and 50 percent of children arriving at these camps are seriously malnourished - an exceptionally high level.

Nonetheless, UNICEF's McCarthy said eastern Ethiopia overall has not yet reached "tipping point", and there is a sense of optimism that a "major crisis" can be averted if donors respond to appeals and enough food aid can be delivered.

In Kenya and Somalia, food shortages have already reached the emergency stage, although the prognosis for each differs. With the Kenyan government having declared a national emergency and promising to increase cereal imports, there is an opportunity to stop things getting much worse, McCarthy said.

But in Somalia, the ongoing conflict raises a question mark about the ability of aid agencies to respond. On Wednesday, Al-Shabaab lifted a ban on humanitarian agencies supplying aid in the large swathes of the country the rebel group controls, because of the drought.

The international aid community welcomed the move, but remains concerned about security. "We stand ready to scale up assistance in southern Somalia but need guarantees that humanitarian workers can operate safely in the area and will not be targeted or agencies taxed," said Mark Bowden, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.


 For the July to September period, FEWSNET estimates that northeast Kenya, southeast Ethiopia and parts of Somalia - mainly in the centre and south - will be in an "emergency" phase of food insecurity, the stage before "catastrophe/famine".

For Somalia, it has said "localised famine conditions (are) possible in the worst affected areas (riverine and urban), depending on the evolution of prices, conflict and humanitarian response".

"After August/September harvests, prices should fall slightly due to new supplies, but are unlikely to return to their pre-crisis levels," it noted in an alert issued in late June.

Neither is the eastern Horn of Africa forecast to receive any relief in the form of rain in the next three months, because the next rainy season does not start until October.

The parts hit by drought are likely to remain seasonally dry from July to September, according to the latest update from the Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum, which met in mid-June.

It said the persistence of the severe drought since the last quarter of 2010 has been associated with La Nina conditions - unusually cool ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific - which have now ended. But it is too early to assess what impact this will have on October-December rainfall in drought-hit areas, the forum added.


Aid agencies say their own capacity to respond depends on the generosity of the response to the appeals they are now issuing. A consortium of 14 British aid groups, known as the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), said in early July they faced a funding shortfall of £85 million ($136 million) for their emergency response in the region.

UNICEF, meanwhile, says it needs around $75 million this year for its response to the drought (including $32 million for the next three months), covering the provision of food, water and health care in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has issued an appeal for $136 million to ease the plight of Somali refugees in neighbouring countries through the rest of 2011.

As yet, U.N. agencies and their NGO partners have not issued a joint appeal for the emergency covering the whole region.

Individual humanitarian appeals for Kenya ($605 million) and Somalia ($561 million) are around half funded. The Ethiopian government is expected to provide donors with a revised assessment of its needs for the next six months in the coming days.

UNICEF's McCarthy said there are signs rich governments are starting to put their hands in their pockets. This week, the British government promised £38 million ($61 million) to provide emergency food relief for 1.3 million Ethiopians over the next three months. 

"We have had important media coverage, and the expectation is that donor support will pick up very quickly," he told AlertNet. "But we won't see much of an improvement (in the crisis) before the end of the year."

The World Food Programme (WFP) is providing food assistance to around 6 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and eastern Uganda, but as the impact of the drought grows, it expect this number will rise to as much as 10 million.

WFP estimates it will need around $477 million to address hunger needs in the region through to the end of the year, but it currently has a 40 percent shortfall in funding amounting to around $190 million.

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