Famine in the Horn of Africa demands a global response

Famine in the Horn of Africa demands a global response

Famine in the Horn of Africa demands a global response
In Ethiopia alone, over 7.2 million people are facing high levels of acute food insecurity. (AFP file photo)
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During his inauguration speech in early June, the new president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, called attention to the grave threat of famine arising from the severe drought affecting the Horn of Africa.
His plea for action echoed similar calls from humanitarian organizations, which have warned that the worst drought in 40 years represents a major crisis for the region, with millions of people already facing extreme hunger.
Rains have failed across four rainy seasons, which has had devastating effects on harvests, decimated livestock, and forced millions to leave their homes in desperate search of food. While the main concern is how to cope with the crisis and provide the support that is needed right now, the fear is that the situation will only worsen, especially if the rains continue to fail.
Although the crisis affects the wider Horn of Africa region, the problem is particularly severe in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. In Somalia, about 7.1 million people are facing high levels of acute food insecurity, as are 7.2 million people in Ethiopia and 4.1 million in Kenya. About 7.1 million children in the three countries face significant hunger, and 2 million of them are already severely malnourished.
Hunger and famine are only two of the effects of extreme drought. The lack of water contributes to an increased risk of water-borne diseases as a result of more intensive use of the remaining sources.
Moreover, the need to travel greater distances to access water puts women and girls at risk of gender-based violence. It also becomes more likely that girls will miss school, and UNICEF has warned that child marriage has already begun to increase in the region as part of the desperate response by families in need.
The last major drought in the region before this one, in 2011, killed about 260,000 people, more than half of whom were children. There are fears that the current drought will exact an even higher toll across the Horn of Africa, especially in Somalia.
Although the catalyst for this crisis is the weather, it has been exacerbated by the disruption caused by the pandemic and the effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine on global food supplies and trade. Almost 90 percent of Somalia’s wheat imports come from Russia and Ukraine, and the blocks on exports resulting from the conflict have led to severe shortages and steep spikes in food prices across the region. The cost of basic foodstuffs has increased by two-thirds in Ethiopia and one-third in Somalia.

Donors must move away from reactive funding models, which kick in when a crisis has reached a critical point, to proactive ones.

Michael Jennings

The situation is a useful reminder that hunger and famine are rarely the products of drought alone — even one as prolonged as this — but are fueled by the politics of money. The region’s suffering is tied to a wicked combination of war-induced disruption to the food trade, inflation, falling food production, and a donor community unable or unwilling to respond.
Underpinning these immediate causes is the impact of climate change. In late June, Jan Egeland, who leads the Norwegian Refugee Council, described the crisis as “Somalia’s climate emergency,” drawing attention to the very real, very substantial effects of the world’s changing climate on the increased severity and frequency of such disasters.
While the current crisis is unprecedented in scale, the reality is that prolonged droughts and the threat of famine are likely to occur more frequently in regions, such as the Horn of Africa, that have long been prone to food crises. This is not only a crisis that requires resolution, therefore, but a foreshadowing of how the climate emergency will increasingly push millions into extreme hunger, especially in regions that are already among the world’s most vulnerable.
Yet despite the scale of the problem, the response by the international community has been inadequate. In addition to the growing need for international aid commitments, there is also a requirement for systemic change. Donors must move away from reactive funding models, which kick in when a crisis has reached a critical point, to proactive ones. This would help ensure that humanitarian organizations have the resources to respond as soon as a crisis emerges. Relying on donor goodwill at a time of global crisis is a poor way to respond to a challenge on this scale.
For President Mohamud, the drought is one more problem he faces as he returns to office. This is his second term and some of the challenges that undermined his presidency between 2012 and 2017 remain in play: High levels of corruption, tensions within the ruling elite, and ongoing violence from the Al-Shabaab insurgency.
But the deafness of the global community in response to a severe and worsening crisis will only make it harder for him to govern, leaving millions to face extreme hunger as a climate-fueled famine continues to devastate the Horn of Africa region.

Michael Jennings is reader in international development at SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development. ©Syndication Bureau

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