16 March 2017

East Africa: Why the Horn of Africa Is Starving Again

Photo: Mike Pflanz/IRIN
Even drought-resistant camels died in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia and Somalia (file photo).

The current drought in the Horn of Africa has caused an unprecedented food crisis that is quickly turning into a regional humanitarian disaster.

More than 17 million people in the region are classified by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation as food-insecure and in need of external food assistance.

As humanitarian aid agencies scale up global campaigns for food and medical aid, the ethical question being asked of governments in the region and their external development partners is how effective, if at all, they have been in mitigating the causes and impact of natural disasters, such as drought and floods that frequently debilitate the people in the region.

The drought emergency is a cyclical occurrence that is predictable and anticipated, but mitigation measures do not seem to be sufficient or are not working.

The drought-affected persons are nearly double those affected in 2011, when 9.5 million people in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda were reported to have been affected by the worst drought emergency in 60 years. The global humanitarian community responded rapidly to save the situation, though in the worst affected areas, the relief was too little too late to reverse the suffering of starving people and livestock.

This La Niña-induced drought has caused a substantial increase in food prices and will have serious consequences on the livelihoods of the affected communities.

According to international humanitarian agency CARE International, the food shortages caused by drought can have devastating long-term effects on children who miss the basic nutrients. In its latest assessment, CARE says the millions of people suffering from drought include 680,000 pregnant and lactating mothers, who are exposed to malnutrition.

The impact of this will be felt by their unborn children and breastfeeding babies. Their future health and development is compromised, because they are receiving much less than their optimal food and nutrition requirements.

Preventing next drought

Studies by governments in the region in collaboration with the United Nations, the World Bank and other agencies have documented the drought cycle--every four to five years--its impact on the communities, economic losses and cost of long-term mitigation measures.

In 2011, an extensive assessment produced a detailed account of the historic and current impact of drought on the communities and the economies of the affected countries. It also recommended the type and scale of investment that was needed to improve the resilience of the affected communities against drought.

For Kenya, the cost of the drought from 2008-2011 amounted to $12.1 billion, according to the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) 2008-2011 Drought report, produced by the government with technical support from the European Union, the United Nations and the World Bank. The report quantified the scale of losses in terms of flows to economic sectors and destruction of physical and durable assets.

The International Federation of the Red Cross, which has global experience in dealing with humanitarian crises, has issued a detailed report on the drought and how to prevent the next disaster.

Drought in the Horn of Africa - Preventing the Next Disaster advocated change in policy from emergency responses to more long-term interventions that will make communities more resilient to drought and other natural disasters.

"It's time to change the way we invest," said a joint report by IFRC secretary-general Bekele Geleta, and Abbas Gullet, general secretary of the Kenya Red Cross. Their report said while emergency aid was important, "relief alone only deepens the danger," hence the long-term solution lies in supporting food security programmes.

Disaster not over yet

The aid agencies estimate they will need over $2 billion to support the hungry and help mitigate livestock losses, even if they cannot stop the crisis. Massive effort is focused on preventing the drought from turning into famine, which may kill thousands or millions of people in the region. These people need food, nutritional supplements, and post-drought recovery interventions.

These efforts, while particularly critical to avert the current emergency, will ease as soon as the rains come, restoring normal food and pasture. This may take a few more months.

The humanitarian situation is categorised as "emergency" for Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan, and "crisis" for Kenya and Uganda by the latest Famine Early Warning System (Fews) Network report, based on projected food needs from January through to August 2017.

But disaster may not be over, if the rains cause flooding, which will displace people and livestock, as well as destroy food crops in the field and increase post-harvest losses. Such effects are evident in southern Africa, where La Niña-induced drought last year was followed recently by massive flooding in Botswana, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe--where losses of human, livestock and staple food harvests have been reported.

Averting disaster

Averting natural disasters will require more strategic and aggressive implementation of the mitigation measures that have been recommended in numerous studies. The 2011 needs assessment estimated that Kenya needed to invest some $3.9 billion in recovery, reconstruction and additional disaster risk reduction programmes to break the cycle of drought.

The estimate was based on the losses and needs reported by government agencies for the key sectors affected by the drought emergency. The largest share of the funds targeted the livestock sector, water and sanitation in the Rift Valley, eastern and northeastern regions, which suffered the most devastating effects.

The other beneficiary sectors were agriculture and agro-industry, fisheries, education, health and nutrition, energy, environment, tourism, forestry and wildlife.

Development partners agreed to support the rapid deployment of these massive recovery and reconstruction initiatives in 2012 and 2013 through their existing and new programmes. Some of the key activities were rehabilitation of dams and water pans in arid and semi-arid areas. The government also pledged to establish and maintain strategic livestock feed reserves.

While a detailed assessment is needed to determine the extent to which mitigation measures have been implemented, the messages from the field would imply that pledges and delivery of some of the long-term disaster mitigation initiatives has been less than satisfactory.

A combination of difficulties, including government budgetary constraints, long and protracted procurement processes and conflicts in the disaster-prone areas have derailed the progress of the programmes.

Rapid, strategic action would have significantly reduced the impact of the current drought. In Somalia, for instance, rehabilitation last year of a borehole drilled in 2009 by the Somalia Regional Water Bureau with funding from Unicef provided "safe and sustainable water" to over 9,000 people and their livestock, according to a February 2016 Unicef report. This saved the community from the devastating effect of the current drought and reduced their dependence on handouts.

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