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Organizations warn of crisis in Horn of Africa

An estimated 13 million people face severe hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia due to the worst drought conditions in decades, WFP said.

Salt miners lead a camel caravan in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression
Salt miners lead a camel caravan in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression (AN/Daniele Levis Pelusi)

GENEVA (AN) — An estimated 13 million people face severe hunger in the Horn of Africa due to the worst drought conditions in decades, the U.N. World Food Program said on Tuesday.

WFP officials said water shortages and dried-up pastures from three consecutive failed rainy seasons have destroyed crops and livestock, forced families from their homes, and increased conflict among hard-hit communities. The dearth of rainfall is expected to continue, threatening more hardship for months to come.

“Harvests are ruined, livestock are dying, and hunger is growing as recurrent droughts affect the Horn of Africa,” said Michael Dunford, a regional director for WFP. “The situation requires immediate humanitarian action and consistent support to build the resilience of communities for the future.”

Not since 1981 has the region, which includes Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, experienced such a severe drought. An estimated 1 million people died of starvation during the Ethiopia famine and food shortages of the early 1980s, one of the 2oth century's worst humanitarian crises.

Separately, UNICEF projected up to 20 million in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia will need water and food assistance in the next six months.

"Many of them are children, who are at even greater risk due to one of the worst climate-induced emergencies of the past 40 years," Mohamed Fall, a regional director for the U.N. children's agency, told reporters.

"The region cannot cope with yet another perfect storm, combining COVID-19, conflict and climate change," he said. "Right now, nearly 5.5 million children in these four countries are threatened by acute malnutrition and an estimated 1.4 million by severe acute malnutrition. UNICEF fears this number will increase by 50% if rains don’t come in the next three months."

US$327 million needed

Among the three countries affected by the drought, families have suffered further from rising prices, inflation, and fewer agricultural jobs. Many cannot afford to buy food, and malnutrition is spiking across the region, according to WFP officials who are providing food, cash grants and other assistance to keep livestock alive or compensate for losses in the affected communities.

The U.N. food assistance organization appealed for US$327 million to take care of the worst-hit populations, about 4.5 million people, over the next half a year, and to increase their communities' resilience to climate change.

Without that help, it said, the region could face another humanitarian crisis on the scale of the 2011 famine in Somalia that led to a quarter-million deaths.

"WFP is today warning an estimated 13 million people are waking up hungry every day across the Horn of Africa as the region grapples with severe drought caused by the driest conditions since 1981," WFP's global spokesperson Tomson Phiri told reporters.

"What is particularly striking about this drought is its breadth. Livestock are dying, and that is devastating for pastoral families," he said. "Staple cereal prices have risen between three- to fivefold above typical levels in several markets. Rising cereal prices and declining livestock prices mean a sharp decrease in the terms of trade."