Alarm bells in Horn of Africa are tolling about unprecedented drought with some 20m people at risk of famine

Alarm bells in Horn of Africa are tolling about unprecedented drought with some 20m people at risk of famine


Already struggling after three seasons of failed rains, farmers and pastoralists in the Horn of Africa are facing an unprecedented fourth drought – a catastrophe that will tip more than 20 million people into extreme hunger and, for some, possibly starvation.

Rains were expected across the region in March or April, but it has been the driest start to the season for 40 years. Most experts believe that southern Ethiopia, northern Kenya and much of Somalia are still in the grip of a drought-causing La Niña weather system.

To complete the disaster, the current level of donor funding is woeful. The humanitarian appeals for the three countries total over $4.4 billion. For Somalia, the most drought-affected, with 7.7 million people in need, its appeal is less than four per cent funded, a stark contrast to fundraising efforts over Ukraine.

That level is also well below what was raised at the same stage during the drought years of 2016 and 2017, when famine was narrowly averted by a determined aid push. Parallels are now being drawn with 2011, when famine killed 260,000 people as aid agencies struggled to reach all those in need.

“We’ve been here before. We know what acting slowly does,” Jeremy Taylor of the Norwegian Refugee Council says. “Delay costs lives; an inability to mobilise resources – and respond in time – costs lives.”

Luglow, a former army base on the outskirts of Somalia’s southern city of Kismayo, is one of thousands of makeshift settlements across the country that are the last resort for those who have lost everything.

People began arriving in November, and now 5,000 families occupy a crowded camp of dome-shaped huts, without water or toilet facilities, on both sides of a tarmac road.

Habiba Kuso had come with her one-year-old child from Saacow, more than 200 kilometres to the north, the day before we visited last month. Unable to find enough water and pasture, her family’s entire herd of 100 cows and 60 goats – all the assets they owned – had become sick and died.

Kuso’s husband had given her all the money he had, but it was only enough for the fare to Luglow. So, although she was able to suckle her baby, she didn’t eat throughout the two-day journey and arrived in the camp with nothing – not even a pot or a mat to sleep on.

“My child and I are very hungry. I’m hoping to get some food, water and shelter here,” she said. “I don’t have a plan [beyond that]. I’m just hoping someone can help us.”

No international relief agencies deliver food aid to Luglow. Help comes from the mosques in Kismayo and from local businesses. Some of the luckier new arrivals have found work in town – typically washing clothes – or as labourers on farms on the banks of the nearby Juba River.

That small splotch of earning helps everyone, as, typically, those who do earn share some of the proceeds with their neighbours. “We eat from the same plate” is a repeated refrain and key to survival under incredibly tough conditions.

Malnutrition is a growing problem among children in Luglow. The stabilisation centre at Kismayo hospital has seen a dramatic rise in admissions for under-fives this year: 81 infants in January, 207 in February and 68 in the first week of March. Malnutrition-related deaths have been reported.

“Children are being admitted in a critical condition, at a rate I’ve never seen before – and some of the mothers are also malnourished,” said Abshir Adan Mohamad, a doctor at the centre. “They are telling us that there are many more sick children in the camp.”

Haawo Abass takes her 16-month-old son, Abdelnasr, to the stabilisation centre in Kismayo for help with kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition.

Pastoralism – the nomadic herding of animals – is an aeons-old way of life that is supremely well suited to the drylands of the Horn of Africa, where crops are hard to grow from arid soil. Droughts here are not unusual. What’s unparalleled is their frequency.

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