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Millions in Horn of Africa Trapped in Hunger Crisis

Somali women and children who left rural areas due to drought receive nutritional assistance at a camp for the internally displaced, on the outskirts of Baidoa, Somalia, Oct. 12, 2022.
Somali women and children who left rural areas due to drought receive nutritional assistance at a camp for the internally displaced, on the outskirts of Baidoa, Somalia, Oct. 12, 2022.

Leading United Nations agencies warn that millions of people in the greater Horn of Africa are trapped in an emergency hunger and health crisis driven by overlapping disasters, including climate change and conflict.

The World Food Program (WFP) reports that seven countries in the East Africa region —Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda — are experiencing unprecedented levels of food insecurity.

WFP said that nearly 60 million people are not getting enough food to remain active and healthy, forcing families to sell their livestock and engage in negative coping strategies such as prostitution to survive.

“If we do not get the necessary funding, people in Phase 4 and Phase 5 are at risk of dying. And that is what we are concerned about,” said Dominique Ferretti, senior emergency officer in WFP’s regional bureau in Nairobi, Kenya.

According to the U.N.’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) scale for acute food insecurity, people in Phase 4 are facing extreme food shortages and risk hunger-related deaths. People in Phase 5 are starving and have reached the calamitous stage of famine.

Ferretti said 40,350 people are in Phase 5 in Somalia, and 43,000 are in Phase 5 in South Sudan.

He noted that the devastating humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa has not been caused by any one single emergency.

“Rather, in the past three years, Eastern Africa has experienced COVID-19, an Ebola outbreak and other epidemics ranging from cholera to measles to dengue; a devastating desert locust plague that swept the region, destroying crops and income; and perhaps more importantly, the vast conflict and insecurity forcing millions from their homes, new refugee displacements from countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, and now unfortunately, Sudan,” he said.

Rains have fallen in the Horn of Africa, bringing relief to the region, which has suffered the longest drought in recent history. But U.N. agencies warn that one rain is not enough to end the crisis.

Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that people in the region are facing many health emergencies.

Liesbeth Aelbrecht, WHO incident manager for the greater Horn of Africa emergency, said acute hunger in the region has sent malnutrition rates soaring, with more than 10.4 million children under the age of five estimated to be facing acute malnutrition in the region.

She said Sudan, which is amid a brutal war, has an estimated 4 million acutely malnourished children and pregnant and breastfeeding women, “out of which more than 100,000 children under five are severely acutely malnourished with medical complications.

“They might have diarrhea or have contracted malaria or measles and are in need of specialized care, as they are at risk of dying,” Aelbrecht said. “Their lives are basically hanging by a thread.”

She said numerous health problems have arisen from five years of prolonged drought and warned that recent flooding in the Horn has worsened many of the ongoing disease outbreaks of cholera, measles and malaria, with severe impact on illness and loss of life.

“Disease outbreaks are flourishing as people are leaving their homes in large numbers because of conflict or in search of food, water and pasture. While we expect more rain in the drought-affected regions, we must brace for new challenges,” Aelbrecht said.

One of the new challenges facing East Africa stems from Russia’s invasion last year of Ukraine. The war prevented the country from exporting wheat, sunflower oil, maize and other crops for many months. The U.N.-Turkey-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative in July 2022 has allowed the exports to resume.

However, Russia has said it would not extend the initiative beyond July 17, unless certain conditions were met. WFP warns that this would result in food shortages and the price of food rising to unaffordable levels.

Ferretti said this would seriously impact people in Africa and the Middle East in particular.

“The reality is that Ukraine is the breadbasket of the world,” he said. “Ukraine is a major supplier, and it would hit us hard if this Black Sea Initiative was not renewed.”