Why East Africa faces its worst famine in decades

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A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in East Africa, which is being hit by the worst drought in at least four decades. According to the World Health Organization, more than 80 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Djibouti are food insecure, and almost half of them have to sell their belongings to get food. As forecasters see a high risk of no rains for a fifth straight season and aid payments falling short of needs, the region is at risk of famine on par with, or worse than, Ethiopia’s in the last 1980s and calling for an estimated 1 million human lives.

1. How bad is the current situation?

Malnutrition is already widespread, particularly among children, with millions of people requiring treatment. Millions of livestock have died, vast tracts of farmland have been decimated, and rural communities have been torn apart as families migrated in search of food and pasture. Many parents cannot afford to keep their children in school, school dropout rates have skyrocketed and there are reports of girls being married off as young as nine to pay for dowries or to ease the economic pressure on households. While Europe, parts of the US and other regions are also hit by severe droughts, they are better equipped to deal with the aftermath than financially weak African nations.

2. What is the background?

Climate change has resulted in extreme weather patterns, and countries across Africa are increasingly struggling with droughts and flash floods. The coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have exacerbated the continent’s problems, making food, fuel and fertilizer supplies more expensive and difficult. Since then, food prices have fallen, but most consumers have yet to find relief. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, hunger is particularly widespread in the Horn of Africa countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

3. Are there other contributing factors?

A locust plague that thrives in hot and dry conditions has wiped out crops across much of East Africa. Somalia and Ethiopia also grapple with internal conflicts that disrupt agriculture and make aid distribution dangerous. In Somalia, the militant group al-Shabaab has been trying to overthrow the government and impose its version of Islamic law since 2006. And in Ethiopia, the government and rebels from the northern Tigray region waged a civil war that dragged on for 16 months before a ceasefire was agreed in March. Tensions remain high and aid organizations say access to conflict zones remains difficult. Presidential elections were held in Kenya on August 9, which may have diverted some attention from the drought.

4. Who tried to help?

The US says it provided more than $6.6 billion in humanitarian and food aid to Africa in the first seven months of 2022, making it the largest single donor. The European Union, Canada, Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom were also leading contributors. The Kenyan government has introduced corn and fuel subsidies but says it cannot afford to keep them indefinitely. While Somalia needs $1.5 billion to help 7 million people in need – almost half the population – only 79% had been pledged by early August, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. For Ethiopia, the deficit was even larger: just a third of the $3.1 billion needed to help 20 million people was provided.

5. What about West Africa?

The Sahel region is facing its own hunger crisis, largely due to the ongoing conflict, which has decimated food production and compounded the impact of higher grain prices and the pandemic. According to the Alliance for International Medical Action, more than 38 million people are fed in the arid region on the southern edge of the Sahara, a 40% increase from last year. Nigeria is grappling with attacks by Islamic State and Boko Haram militants in the country’s north-east and a rise in banditry in the north-west, while insurgents wreak havoc in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.

For more stories like this, visit bloomberg.com


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