The worst drought in four decades has gripped the Horn of Africa, threatening 22 million people from southern Ethiopia to northern Kenya and Somalia.
Residents in the affected areas, who primarily rely on herding and subsistence farming for a living, are experiencing their fifth consecutive poor rainy season since the end of 2020.
The United Nations says 12 million people in Ethiopia, 5.6 million in Somalia and 4.3 million in Kenya are “acutely food insecure”.
According to a January 23 report from the UN World Food Programme, the overall figure has nearly doubled from 13 million at the start of 2022.
A lack of water and pasture has driven 1.7 million people from their homes across the region, according to the report.
The Horn of Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense.
According to data from the US-based Climate Hazards Center, eight of the 13 rainy seasons since 2016 have seen below-average rainfall.
The last famine was declared in Somalia in 2011, when 260,000 people died of hunger, half of whom were children under the age of six, partly because the international community did not act quickly enough, according to the UN.
The region had experienced two poor rainy seasons at the time, compared to five in the current drought.
Crops have already been wiped out by a locust invasion between 2019 and 2021, and livestock has suffered a similar fate.
In November, the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA estimated that 9.5 million cattle had died.
Humanitarian organizations warn that the situation will only worsen, as the next rainy season, from March to May, is also expected to be below average.
The Horn’s dire situation has been exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict, which has contributed to rising food and fuel prices, disrupted global supply chains, and diverted aid funds away from the region.
Somalia has been hit the hardest, with the drought affecting more than half of the country’s population, or 7.85 million people.
OCHA stated in December that the troubled country was technically not in the grip of full-fledged famine due to the response of aid agencies and local communities.
People were still suffering from “catastrophic” food shortages, it said, warning that if assistance is not increased, famine in southern Somalia is expected between April and June.
Agropastoral populations in Baidoa and Burhakaba districts, as well as displaced people in Baidoa town and Mogadishu, were particularly vulnerable.
OCHA warned that by June, the number of people at the highest level of the UN’s five-tiered food insecurity classification was expected to more than triple to 727,000 from October, implying that they have dangerously little access to food and may starve.
According to UNICEF, nearly two million children in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia require immediate treatment for severe acute malnutrition, the deadliest form of hunger.
It stated in September that 730 children died in Somalia nutrition centers between January and July, but that the true figure was likely much higher.
Lacking water, milk, and food, and often living in squalor, the youngest become so weak that they are vulnerable to diseases like measles and cholera, and their long-term growth can be hampered.
According to the report, 2.7 million children have also stopped attending school.
“There is no end in sight for the hunger crisis and hope is slowly fizzling out,” said Xavier Joubert, Ethiopia director for the British charity Save the Children.
“There’s no doubt that the need has grown to an enormous scale,” he said, adding that more funds were urgently required.
Currently only 55.5 percent of the $5.9 billion sought by the United Nations to tackle the crisis has been funded.
Early humanitarian action averted a famine in Somalia in 2017.