The Horn of Africa region, which includes parts of Somalia, Kenya,  Ethiopia, is experiencing a severe drought. This region has been particularly vulnerable to droughts in recent years–but the situation this summer has become increasingly dire and is raising the prospect of a widespread humanitarian emergency.

A little background: In the summer of 2011, there was a similar drought in the region. But warnings about the humanitarian consequences of this drought went largely unheeded until the drought lead to a famine — the first of the 21st century. Over the subsequent weeks and months over 260,000 people died, making this famine one of the worst mass atrocities of this decade.

That was 2011. In 2017, there was another drought. But this time, the international community and governments in the region responded with urgency. They were able to provide humanitarian assistance and other aid and interventions that prevented the tragedy of 2011 from being repeated.

This brings us So that is all some recent historic background to an email that landed in my inbox from Oxfam, which compared data around the humanitarian response in 2011 to the response to the current ongoing drought, which shows that compared to 2011, the humanitarian needs are greater and the international response is far less robust. This of course suggests that unless something changes, the current drought could lead to another famine.

On the line with me to discuss the current humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa is Dustin Barter, the regional drought policy and advocacy lead, Oxfam. He authored a report comparing the impact of the 2011, 2017 and current drought and the international humanitarian response.

If you have 20 minutes and want to learn why the international community ought to be paying attention to an incipient humanitarian emergency in the Horn of Africa, have a listen

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What’s up first?

Currently, we are experiencing a severe drought in the Horn. It is affecting more than 15.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. The drought comes very quickly after the 2017 drought that devastated a lot of the area as well. We see in the first 6 months of 2019 there has been a steep rise in the quantity of people in need of humanitarian assistance. We have tried to raise the profile of this crisis, but because it comes so soon after 2017 there is a lack of mobilization. It is hard to gain traction globally. Yet, in the first six months of this year the humanitarian numbers have increased dramatically and funding has been stifled. Yet, we learned from responses in 2011, there was a massive drought and the response was slow. It resulted in famine with over 260,000 people dying in Somalia. In 2017, a drought struck and with 2011 in mind, the response was well funded and timely and averted the worst impacts. So we are now in 2019, are we headed towards a 2011 disaster or will we respond positively like we did in 2017?

How is this drought affecting the livelihoods of the impacted 15.3 million people?

It is devastating across the three countries. You can grow things out of mud but you can’t grow anything out of dust. Nobody has effectively recovered from 2017 yet. The impact is severe, people do not have livestock. I spoke with a woman from Somaliland and she discussed the recent rains and the response of the international community. She said yes there has been rain, but who wants to eat grass? Nobody has livestock, so there are no benefits from that rain. People are scrambling to get drinkable water and water to save their livestock. Moreover, people have to travel to urban centers so there is a lot of displacement. This is also a security risk. Drought is a driver of risk in these contexts because people are forced to migrate across risky areas, and areas they aren’t familiar with. Men often travel off to find some form of income, which places a heavy burden on women and children left behind. Food prices go up because agricultural production has been decimated. So if you have lost your livestock, you are also facing higher costs for your basic needs.

Is there a direct correlation between drought and food prices?

Often times, yes. As soon as cereals and other food production diminishes, the demand is still there, so the prices increase quickly. There is a recent article looking at 45 million people in need of humanitarian assistance across 14 eastern and southern African nations. The Horn of Africa is part of this larger climate crisis.

An important context here is the 2011 drought that led to famine. It was one of the worst mass atrocity events of the 21st century. What led to that event? Are you seeing any parallels?

It was catastrophic. There was a severe failure of international humanitarian architecture. What unfolded is in 2011 there were early warnings, but it was only around June when people said it was bad. In early July people said it was really bad, and by the end of July famine was declared. Drought we see as a slow onset disaster, but the situation turned quickly because of the severe vulnerability of communities.

Famine, in the context of these conversations, does not just mean people lack food. It is actually a threshold that the UN and others use to determine why people are dying because of lack of food. Child mortality and malnutrition have to reach certain levels. Can you explain that threshold?

Right, so when you actually get to the point of famine being declared there are already mass deaths. There are a lot of technical processes and it is usually up to the UN to decide when famine has hit. As we saw in 2011, famine was declared quickly after alarms were raised and the result was 260,000 deaths. Even in the 21st century, that number is an absolute catastrophe. The funding situation is less than 2011 but the humanitarian need is 50% more. We don’t want to use the word famine now, because we don’t want to cry wolf, but the situation looks bleak.

Is one key difference that in 2011 you had the Al-Shabab insurgency that was raging?

The security situation has vastly improved since 2011. But, you still face extreme insecurity in certain parts of Somalia. There are still a lot of attacks and restrictions and challenges for humanitarian aid. To deliver the assistance to the amount of people is restrained, so while security has improved, if you don’t have the resources to deliver aid, you will really struggle.

Can you discuss how that 2017 response prevented the worst case scenario?

So, 2017 was marked by mass mobilization of political will and financial resources. The UN, EU, and U.S. were active, and as were the governments of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. The African Union and IGAD were also active. Additionally, the private sector contributed funding. Early intervention is far more economical, practical, and effective in saving lives. It is more expensive to act later.

Right now, the needs are greater and the funds are less robust. Can you discuss that funding gap?

In 2011 there were 9.8 million people in need during June/July. Now it is 15.3 million. The funding plan in 2011 was 46.5% funded. Now the response plans are 35.4% funded. That is a 1.5 billion dollar funding gap. If you have a gap that large, how many lives can you save if you don’t have the resources to do so? A lot of humanitarian responders do not want to be seen as continually asking for money, but what we also need to recognize compared to 2011, the Kenyan government has taken a much more proactive role in delivering humanitarian assistance. Currently, the Ethiopian government is funding nearly 50% of the humanitarian response plan. National governments have definitely stepped up. But, the international community needs to recognize that while these governments have done a lot, they are resource constrained and we need to step up our game.

This has to be situated in the border/climate crisis context. This is not just a drought but the new reality of the climate crisis. It is a bit rich of us to say we are tired of funding humanitarian responses, when we have benefited so economically from the vast emissions we have contributed. The Horn of Africa is the canary in the coal mine of the climate crisis impacts as much as sinking islands in the Pacific. This is not just a matter of immediate humanitarian response, which is critical, but looking at broader climate change adaptation and long term resilience. We need more coherent and longer term action plans.

In the short term, if that funding gap is not closed, what are the chances a famine befalls this region again?

There are predictions for the coming months that the situation will deteriorate. People, including Oxfam and myself, are reluctant to be seen as “crying wolf” by saying famine is likely. But, if you look at the numbers and need, with or without famine, people are extremely vulnerable. We know early response is best and most cost effective.

On the long term climate resilience point, what is an example of a climate resilience project that wealthier countries could invest in to reduce the likelihood that these droughts turn into food security crises?

One example is Somalia’s national debt which stands at 4.6 billion, which is comparatively nothing if you look at the U.S. Yet, they are restricted from accessing international financing, whether that be grants or loans. The international community pushes the Somali government to do more, but how can they do anything when they are totally restricted from accessing international finance? If we want to talk about systemic justice and the ability to build resilience in Somalia, then we need to take this issue of debt relief seriously. Kenya has the Hunger Safety Net Program. It is ambitious and promising, but it needs to be better funded and reaching the most vulnerable more consistently. We need to look at the bigger picture.

In the coming weeks/months, what indicators will you be looking towards to see whether or not the situation will stabilize or deteriorate?

There are multiple early warning systems that have already been triggered in various ways. The severity of the impacts is both predictable and preventable. Nobody wants to look back in 2020 and say we have failed again. In the next few months we should look at rainfall patterns, pasture coverage, and other mechanisms to measure the situation. It is unpredictable, though. In 2011, the situation from June to July changed dramatically and all of the sudden there was famine. It is better to monitor everything, but don’t be afraid to act early and adopt a “no regrets policy”.

Shownotes by Lydia DeFelice

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