After four consecutive failed rainy seasons, East Africa’s harvests have become so barren that one person is likely to die of starvation every 36 seconds, according to a new report on acute food insecurity in the region. Conditions in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are deteriorating so rapidly that human rights experts say it is the worst hunger crisis in the region’s history – and there is little relief in sight.
“The situation is extreme,” Margret Mueller, regional coordinator for East and Central Africa at Oxfam International, the global organization focused on alleviating global poverty that published the report, told Yahoo News. “The next potential improvement in the situation is the next rainy season, which lasts from March to May. The first time we can hope for a harvest is next year [in] June. By then, the situation will get worse and 9 million animals have already died in the region.”
An estimated 31 million people in the three countries face some degree of acute food insecurity, while 11 million are expected to face high levels of insecurity, meaning they are in dire need of food assistance, according to the latest data from Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a tool to improve food security analysis and decision making. At least 6 million children are affected or already suffering from acute malnutrition.
Without adequate food and water, millions of people in the region are in survival mode. The cost of groceries has sometimes doubled and often tripled in recent months, Mueller said. More than a million people have left their homes in search of fodder and pasture for animals. In dire circumstances, adults go days without food instead of feeding their children and animals, and education has become an afterthought for many communities that will have a long-lasting impact.
“Unfortunately, it seems that history is in serious danger of repeating itself,” Kiersten Johnson, team leader of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) team, told Agrilinks, an online community for food security and agricultural practitioners Development. “In Somalia, alarm bells rang months in advance in 2011, but the rest of the world responded passively. … What we are saying to the world is that this moment – right now – is our last chance to change the course of things.”
Famine is due to be declared in parts of Somalia this month, meaning at least 20% of households will face extreme food shortages, around 30% of children will suffer from acute malnutrition and 2 in every 10,000 people will die from either starvation or hunger through the interaction of malnutrition and disease. A 2011 famine in the country claimed the lives of 260,000 people, more than half of whom were children under the age of 6. Experts fear that this drought will claim many more lives.
“We can’t wait for a famine to be declared,” Rein Paulsen, director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s office for emergencies and resilience, said after a visit to Somalia in August. “We must act now to secure livelihoods and lives.”
Resource scarcity has been exacerbated by the economic impact of COVID-19 and the rising costs stemming from Russia’s war in Ukraine, known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’. An already fragile situation is being exacerbated by the extreme water and food shortages that existed in Ukraine before the war. Somalia alone imports about 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and the war there has severely reduced supplies, causing prices to rise sharply.
In the sub-Saharan region, most people are fishermen, herdsmen and farmers who depend on agriculture. Without harvest, neither man nor animal can survive unless outside help is provided.
“Right now it’s the livestock, and next it’s going to be our kids,” Mueller said, describing those at risk.
Climate change, regional conflicts and extreme poverty have exacerbated the problems, and now many people are unaware that the crisis even exists. A poll of Americans ages 19 to 34, conducted last month by IRC and YouGov, found that 69% were unaware there was a drought in East Africa until they took the poll. Another 57% said politicians are not doing enough to address climate change and related food shortages.
“In the US, there is a clear bipartisan consensus that more urgently needs to be done to avert climate change-induced famine in East Africa,” said David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, in a statement. “The worst drought in forty years is symptomatic of the deepening impacts of climate change and international neglect that is fueling hunger, particularly in countries already affected by conflict. The US public, especially youth, is united: Global leaders must do more to counter the worst impacts of climate change, especially on the world’s most vulnerable.”
The US has so far donated over $2 billion in critical humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa to affected regions, more than the rest of the world combined, according to a spokesman for the US Agency for International Development (USAID). However, they recognize that a $1 billion gap remains, according to the UN
“We are very concerned that the funds currently available will not meet the needs,” Tracy O’Heir, director of the East Africa division of USAID’s Office of Humanitarian Assistance, told Yahoo News earlier this year.
For others it is as if the crisis does not exist.
“This appears to be an invisible famine,” Gayle Smith, CEO of One.org and former USAID administrator under President Barack Obama, told Time magazine. “I think there is some awareness, but it hasn’t triggered the kind of international response that one would expect and that is actually needed.”
As crops continue to fail year after year, it has not escaped proponents that the G-20, an intergovernmental forum made up of the world’s largest economies, is responsible for 80% of global emissions and that the most vulnerable countries hit the worst impacts that trickle down to nutrition, health and education.
Although political leaders have made many promises to help the region, little has changed.
“We have raised the alarm but only see the situation continue to deteriorate,” Oxfam America president and CEO Abby Maxman said in a statement. “It is not an act of assistance, but our collective obligation to act now.”
For Mueller, it comes down to will and compassion.
“Here we have to ask ourselves: ‘How do we deal with empathy?’ and ‘How do we deal with that?’” she said. “Hunger is a political choice that we as a global community are making not to act. It’s not an event, it’s not an earthquake. … If we don’t want to starve to death every 36 seconds, we have to help East Africa.”
Cover photo: AP Photo/Jerome Delay