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 supposed to begin falling 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 percent 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 told The New Humanitarian. “Delay costs lives; an inability to mobilise resources – and respond in time – costs lives.”
‘My child and I are very hungry’
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 The New Humanitarian 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.
“We’ve been here before. We know what acting slowly does.”
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.”
A regional crisis
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.
The current stretch of failed rains has hit a region that had barely begun to recover from the 2016-2017 drought. With no pause to enable pasture and water points to regenerate, people’s ability to cope has been stripped away.
In southern Ethiopia, more than 6.8 million people need aid. There have been at least 1.4 million livestock deaths – worth hundreds of millions of dollars – with almost 70 percent of animals perishing in the Somali region alone. It’s not just a financial hit: Like Somalia, milk is the main source of nutrition for children. Again, malnutrition rates are alarming and rising.
“We haven’t seen a donor step forward to own this crisis.”
The statistics aren’t much better in northern Kenya. More than three million people are short of food – an almost 50 percent increase since August 2021. Over 1.5 million livestock have died, even while the government and aid agencies have trucked in water and provided emergency fodder and cash disbursements.
“We are now in a crisis response; in a couple of weeks, it will be a matter of life and death,” said Hussein Noor, with the aid agency Mercy Corps. “Markets [in northern Kenya] have crumbled, so traditional cash aid doesn’t work; drought relief now needs to be food relief.”
Food costs are surging across the region, partly a consequence of the record international prices for grains and the new impetus of the Ukraine war. That not only compounds the crisis for poor households, but also means already limited donor funding now buys even less.
“What’s clear is that the drought response is not getting even close to what’s needed,” said Taylor. With so many other emergencies – from Afghanistan to Ukraine – “donors are tapped out”. But it goes beyond money: “We also need leadership; we haven’t seen a donor step forward to own this crisis, to organise a regional pledging conference,” he added.
Not just nature’s failings
Drought obscures the politics that is also to blame for hunger. Somalia has been at war for almost three decades – a conflict that has left millions of people perpetually in need, and with a weak and donor-dependent federal government, whose authority extends little beyond the capital, Mogadishu.
Virtually all the aid money Somalia receives goes to the humanitarian response run by the relief agencies. There’s little available for meaningful development spending.
That includes the government’s 2018 drought recovery plan, which, among other measures, includes recommendations for the rehabilitation of water harvesting systems abandoned since the collapse of the last nationwide government in 1991.
“This [donor] approach to managing Somalia, on a crisis to crisis [basis], is something that needs to be addressed,” Hodan Ali, a former adviser to the mayor of Mogadishu, recently noted.
But the reality is that the federal government is fractious and weak. It’s also involved in turf wars with equally fragile state authorities – both have been preoccupied by domestic politics rather than the drought.
In the last few months, al-Shabab has also stepped up its military pressure – a reminder of its continued presence – which has generated yet more displacement.
Nevertheless, there’s a recognition that future aid needs to include drought adaptation and resilience-building. “If we do things the same old way, the reality is that we’ll be here again with the next drought,” said Taylor. “We need new approaches, new partners, new perspectives – we need new solutions.”
The jihadist group al-Shabab controls swathes of the countryside and enforces a strict isolation of rural communities. It distrusts mainstream Western aid agencies, especially the World Food Programme, which it accuses of undermining local farmers.
Counter-terrorism legislation also blocks donor-funded relief organisations from working in insurgent territory. “Only the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and the Somali Red Crescent have access to areas under al-Shabab control,” explained Ahmed Abukar, director general of Somalia’s Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs.
Some small community-based NGOs are allowed in, but this is only at the discretion of individual al-Shabab commanders, and the amount of aid they can deliver is tiny.
Southern Ethiopia’s Somali regional government has launched an effective response to the drought, according to William Baron, a resilience specialist with Mercy Corps in Ethiopia.
But its water trucking and emergency feeding programmes have run out of money – just as the rains have failed again – and little donor funding has materialised to fill the gap.
The federal government’s safety net programme has historically helped protect the most vulnerable, and it has contributed to poverty reduction in the Somali region. But the 18-month war in Tigray has squeezed government funding.
“Donors also have finite resources, and the needs in the north are so huge that the [drought-affected] south has definitely received less attention,” said Baron.
Policy choices also play a role in the drought crisis in Kenya. Traditionally, the sparsely populated northeast has been politically marginalised. Although devolution has decentralised power, the legacy of that approach means markets and trade links remain weak.
That has a bearing on pastoralists who – learning the droughts’ lessons – are trying to shift from traditionally large, prestige-earning herds that are difficult to keep healthy, to more sustainable smaller holdings of better-fed animals, which have a higher market value.
The next drought
Global warming almost guarantees that droughts in the Horn of Africa will become more frequent and severe. Before 1999, failed rains affected the region every five to six years, “but now it’s more like two to three years”, said Ahmed Ibrahim, southern Somalia representative for Save the Children.
“Pastoralists have always found ways to adapt,” noted Philip Thornton of the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). “But in a situation where conditions are changing so rapidly, it gives them no time for trial and error, to find what works.”
“Pastoralism is not dead, but it is evolving,” according to Melaku Yirga, Mercy Corps Ethiopia director.
Part of the transition is a shift to commercialisation, despite the deep bond pastoralists have for their animals, and their hesitancy to sell off younger and healthier stock.
Households with additional sources of income tend to survive droughts far better, so diversification is a growing trend. Financial services, from destocking subsidies to safety nets, also help build resilience.
Better rangeland management, through empowering traditional authorities, can help prevent overgrazing, according to Todd Crane of the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute. Livestock insurance – which pays out in drought years – is another useful measure, although, according to Crane, it needs a public-private partnership to be scaled up effectively.
Philip Thornton at ILRI, lead author for the International Panel on Climate Change’s latest assessment report on vulnerability, notes that while there is plenty of research on adaptation for the farm-based cash crop economy, far less work has been done on pastoralism.
Addressing that, he said, means “pastoralists need to be part of the political conversation” – reversing their historical marginalisation.
Heat stress, disease, and the loss of biodiversity will affect humans and livestock alike – with animal productivity predicted to fall sharply. Competition between desperate pastoralists is likely to lead to increased conflict.
Somalia’s recurrent droughts have already forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave the land, squeezing into displacement camps on the periphery of urban centres. With no animals left, there’s little chance they’ll be able to resume their former lives.
For Kurso in Luglo, it’s still a struggle to come to terms with her new-found destitution. “If I do go back, I don’t want to be a pastoralist,” she told The New Humanitarian.
But pastoralism need not be so hazardous. There’s growing evidence that drought action can be improved with the right measures. These include: the international community responding early to immediate needs; doubling down on interventions to build resilience to the next drought; and that investments now reduce the price tag of future emergencies.
“We need to build more durable solutions, to build capacity and institutions, or we are just scratching the surface,” Melaku Yirga, Mercy Corps’ director for Ethiopia, told The New Humanitarian.
“At the moment, we oscillate between drought and ‘normal’ responses; but we need to recognise that drought is actually the new normal.”
With additional reporting in Mogadishu by Abdalle Ahmed Mumin. The New Humanitarian used transportation provided by Save the Children. Edited by Josephine Schmidt.