Regional governments lag in their response as famine looms in East Africa

By Joseph Maina

August 30, 2022

Though tragedy looms for millions in Eastern Africa as a catastrophic drought wreaks havoc, the response from governments across the region has been muted.

The World Health Organization has warned that millions are facing starvation and disease in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. The situation is further exacerbated by drought, conflict, climate change and increasing prices for food, fuel and fertilizer.

Some 22 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are struggling to find enough to eat, with numbers expected to rise, according to the United Nations World Food Program.

“Livestock are dying, and there are critical shortages of water and food,” WFP announced. “More than a million people have fled their homes and are now living in crowded camps, where humanitarians are scrambling to meet the overwhelming needs.”

WHO is now appealing for a $123.7 million kitty that will go towards preventing and controlling outbreaks as well as treating malnutrition and boosting healthcare provision in the region.

Although a number of development partners, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the European Union, have stepped in with humanitarian aid to go towards affected areas, there has been little official response from regional governments.

As food insecurity festers, some people are forced to choose between paying for food and health care, adds WHO. The situation is forcing many people to migrate in search of food, which can further increase the risk of disease, and reduce access to health services.

A “very severe” drought has struck several districts in Uganda with devastating consequences on food production and nutrition insecurity. In northern Uganda, more than 200 people had died of hunger in July alone. Children, the elderly and lactating mothers — groups considered particularly vulnerable — were reportedly “dying silently” in their homes as drought intensified and the food scarcity situation was worsened by rampant insecurity.

In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, drought has aggravated an already dire situation for 6 million people who have been under siege from Ethiopian and Eritrean forces for 21 months. The people of Tigray are facing multiple outbreaks of malaria, anthrax, cholera, diarrhoea and more.

By June this year, more than 7 million people in war-torn Somalia were reportedly stuck the throes of hunger, with more than 200,000 facing starvation. An unrelenting Islamist insurgency further complicates matters by hampering access to vulnerable populations by humanitarian missions.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has reared its ugly head in the emerging calamity, as soaring food prices have further aggravated the situation for millions. Experts have pointed to the conflict as an attempt by Russia to blackmail the world with food by blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and thus hindering the export of the country’s grain to world markets.

In neighboring Kenya, the drought reportedly continued to worsen in August across 20 out of the 23 arid and semi-arid (ASAL) counties, states the country’s National Drought Management Authority (NDMA).

“This is attributed to the poor performance of the 2021 Long rains coupled with previous three failed consecutive seasons. The number of people in need of assistance is projected to increase to 4.35 million by October 2022 if the short rains season performs below average,” notes the NBMA in its national drought early warning bulletin for August 2022.

NBMA further reports cases of acute malnutrition across the counties with over 800,000 cases of children aged 6-59 months acutely malnourished and 115,000 cases of pregnant or lactating women “acutely malnourished and in need of treatment.”

In addition, the current physical condition of most livestock is below normal in the affected regions as result of the poor performance of the 2022 long rains season, which adversely affected pasture regeneration.

As part of measures to help communities cope with the effects of drought, NBMA recommends provision of food assistance and scaling up of cash transfers targeting food insecure households, as well as livestock supplements and feeds. NBMA further recommends greater awareness creation to enhance hygiene promotion and provisions for severe acute malnutrition.

The perils of climate change have been hitting conflict-riddled South Sudan particularly hard, according to the UNHCR.

“Climate-change driven floods are now impacting about one million people in South Sudan every year, aggravating an already precarious situation for one of Africa’s most fragile and conflict-affected countries. In other parts of the country, many more people have been tipped into food insecurity as droughts have killed livestock and disrupted crop cycles. To escape both flooding and drought, pastoralists have moved their animals far beyond the traditional transhumance routes, bringing them into fierce conflict with sedentary communities, including South Sudanese who have recently returned home from exile,” UNHCR reported in July.

Worse is expected in the region.

The IGAD Regional Focus on Food Crises report projected in July that over 50 million people are expected to face high levels of acute food insecurity this year across seven IGAD countries — Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda.

Image: A food distribution in the Afar region of Ethiopia in August. Photo: WFP/Claire Nevill