‘Brink of Catastrophe’: Drought Worsens Humanitarian Crisis in East Africa

Experts warn of the driest conditions in over four decades, fueled in part by climate change.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
A Kenyan pastoralist looks at sheep and goats that died from changing climate.
A Kenyan pastoralist looks at sheep and goats that died from changing climate.
A pastoralist from a local Gabra community shades his eyes from the sun as he looks out at a field strewn with sheep and goat carcasses suspected to have succumbed to sudden changes in climate in Marsabit County, Kenya, on Jan. 29. TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images

The Horn of Africa is facing a severe drought that risks compounding ongoing humanitarian crises, including a devastating conflict in Ethiopia that has displaced at least 2 million people. 

As the drought destroys crops and livestock, more than 13 million people are expected to experience severe levels of hunger, according to the U.N. World Food Program. Arid conditions have already slashed food production and killed an estimated 1.5 million livestock, a stark loss that has exacerbated food insecurity across the region. In Ethiopia, more than 6 million drought-affected people will likely require food aid, and in neighboring Somalia, the drought has already displaced roughly 245,000 people. That number could spike to 1.4 million if the drought worsens, according to projections from the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The drought, fueled by the impacts of climate change, threatens to overwhelm the already strained humanitarian crisis infrastructure in East Africa, experts warn.

The Horn of Africa is facing a severe drought that risks compounding ongoing humanitarian crises, including a devastating conflict in Ethiopia that has displaced at least 2 million people. 

As the drought destroys crops and livestock, more than 13 million people are expected to experience severe levels of hunger, according to the U.N. World Food Program. Arid conditions have already slashed food production and killed an estimated 1.5 million livestock, a stark loss that has exacerbated food insecurity across the region. In Ethiopia, more than 6 million drought-affected people will likely require food aid, and in neighboring Somalia, the drought has already displaced roughly 245,000 people. That number could spike to 1.4 million if the drought worsens, according to projections from the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The drought, fueled by the impacts of climate change, threatens to overwhelm the already strained humanitarian crisis infrastructure in East Africa, experts warn.

Many of these people “were already the most vulnerable,” said Cameron Hudson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, who noted that parts of the region have previously endured intense locust outbreaks, which decimated harvests, as well as prolonged conflict. “You add on top of that drought conditions, and it has the potential to be catastrophic.”

The latest drought’s impacts have been so dire because the region has already been strained by unusually long consecutive periods of low rainfall and dry weather: The current spell will mark its third successive poor rainy season. Western governments and international organizations are scrambling to respond to and head off famine if the worst-case scenario plays out in the coming months.

“If your immune system is constantly under attack, it becomes harder and harder to ward off new diseases if you’re constantly battling them,” Hudson said. “That’s sort of the same here. The resiliency systems are just not able to keep up with the demand on them.”

This week, the top U.S. foreign aid agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), announced it was allocating an additional $39 million to respond to the drought, funds aimed at helping 1.6 million people affected by some of the driest conditions the region has faced in four decades. The United States has committed more than $1 billion in humanitarian funding to Ethiopia since the beginning of fiscal year 2021, even as tensions mounted between the two countries as Washington criticized how Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has managed his country’s war against Tigrayan forces. 

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has also called for $130 million in funding to aid the region. “We are most definitely now sitting on the brink of catastrophe,” said Rein Paulsen, the organization’s director of emergencies and resilience, in a statement. Immediate action is necessary, he urged, with only “a very time sensitive, narrow window for urgent actions to scale up to prevent a worst-case scenario.” The money FAO aims to raise is meant to assist rural households in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, including with irrigation support, rehabilitation of water points, and cash transfers to the most vulnerable populations affected by the drought. 

Aid officials and experts fear it may be difficult to keep raising funds to stave off the worst effects of the drought from international donors, who are already suffering from donor fatigue after years of the region being beset by crises and droughts. The region’s history of drought “has dulled the acuteness of the international response,” Hudson said. “Drought is no longer seen as an exceptional or extraordinary circumstance. It’s seen as almost to be expected.”

Climate change only increases the intensity and frequency of these droughts, contributing to a more volatile climate—in these months, hotter air temperatures and below-average rainfall—that can result in particularly grave conditions. In Ethiopia, water shortages have reached record lows. The rainfall deficits have been so significant that right now, what we’re looking at is the driest conditions in over four decades in the area,” said a USAID official, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly.

The water shortage could heighten tensions surrounding a massive dam project that the Ethiopian government is constructing on the Blue Nile river. The project, according to the Ethiopian government, would increase energy output to the region and could mitigate the worst impacts of drought for farming communities. But two countries downriver, Egypt and Sudan, view the project as a potential threat to their main water resource, leading to a diplomatic standoff that could intensify under severe drought. 

The resulting combination of shrinking food production—in Kenya, crop output has dropped by 70 percentsoaring inflation, and climbing food prices has been devastating. Almost half of Somali children under age 5—more than 1.4 million children—will likely face severe malnutrition in the coming months, according to UNICEF. Across the region, an estimated 5.5 million children are at risk. 

You see this sort of perfect storm for food insecurity,” said Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Under projections from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a program that tracks food crises, parts of the region may face another failed rainy season this spring. If these predictions materialize, “that would be a historically unprecedented situation,” said the USAID official. “It’s really something that’s not been seen in the region.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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