Drought Hits the Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa is experiencing multiple, overlapping humanitarian crises. For people living in arid and semi-arid areas of the Horn of Africa, conflict and drought create a constant competition for scarce resources. A highly politicized armed conflict in northern Ethiopia has caused global outrage and has pulled political and financial attention away from other issues facing the region, including food insecurity. Today, the humanitarian response to the worst drought in decades remains badly underfunded, with concerns about widespread death and irregular migration because of agriculture loss at a time of major volatility in global wheat markets.

Q1: How severe is the current drought? 

A1: In November 2021, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) reported that seasonal rainfall for a large swath of the Horn of Africa was at its lowest since 1981. This comes on the heels of an unprecedented four consecutive poor rainy seasons. In the 2010–2011 Horn drought, two consecutive poor rainy seasons led to the deaths of nearly a 250,000 Somalis. Today, nearly seven million Ethiopians, one million Kenyans, and three million Somalis require emergency life-saving assistance because of drought conditions. UN assessments also report an estimated 1.5 million animals have already died. Losing this critical source of income, nutrition, and cultural identity has contributed to the displacement of nearly 500,000 people in Somalia, with predictions that another 1.5 million may be displaced later this year as the drought deepens suffering.   

The U.S. Agency for International Development's 2021–2022 Bellmon crop availability and market analysis indicates Ethiopia’s national food shortage in Ethiopia to be five to six million metric tons,  resulting in an unprecedented requirement of government and international food aid resources required to fill the domestic grain supply gap. To deliver this amount of food to Ethiopia would require 125 ships in the port of Djibouti and 125,000 trucks to ferry supplies into the country. Such quantities have never been accomplished in such a short period of time. Furthermore, the port also serves several other countries with humanitarian and commercial goods, so the logistical capacity is unable to support the scale of needed humanitarian imports.

Q2: Can UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) access drought-affected areas in Ethiopia and Somalia?

A2: Unlike in northern Ethiopia where the government of Ethiopia is imposing a de facto blockade, humanitarian organizations can move staff and supplies across the eastern, central, and southern areas of the country. However, doing so is riskier today due to negative rhetoric and misinformation about the work of humanitarians in Ethiopia. 

In Somalia, steady al Shabaab attacks threaten the safety of civilians and relief workers, impeding the delivery of life-saving assistance. And while the specter of violence affecting civilians and aid workers alike is a real concern, there are other unique challenges in aiding the estimated 23 million nomads in the Horn. Aid agencies must travel across great distances to deliver two distinct types of assistance: basic relief items for civilians, and fodder, water, and veterinary services to mitigate losses of livestock. 

Q3: How will the loss of Ukrainian and Russian wheat impact the Horn?

A3: The invasion of Ukraine, long known as the "breadbasket of Europe" for its production of wheat, corn, and other cereal grains, will have impacts far beyond Europe and wreak havoc on global food supply and prices. Prior to Russia’s invasion, food prices were already at a 10-year high. Wheat futures have risen by as much as 40 percent and corn by 16 percent, according to the UN World Food Program (WFP). The availability of supplies for humanitarian aid use is a real question.  

According to the International Grains Council (IGC), stocks in major wheat exports are projected to fall to a nine-year low by the end of the 2021–2022 season, meaning the availability of supplies will be lower than any time in recent memory, driving prices to unprecedented levels.

For Ethiopia and the Horn, the consequences are potentially calamitous. Even if commodities were available, donor funding would have to contend with higher prices for food and fuel, meaning the available funding will have less impact.

Q4: Given crises in northern Ethiopia and elsewhere, can donors deliver?

A4: Donors to humanitarian appeals must balance the needs of those affected by violence and climactic events. The United Nations’ Financial Tracking Service (FTS) shows the humanitarian appeal for northern Ethiopia is nearly 70 percent funded; the United States is the largest donor, providing more than $500 million (nearly 80 percent). The reduction in funding of two key donors, the European Union and the United Kingdom, remains worrisome. The European Union cut funding to Ethiopia over concerns about human rights abuses and humanitarian access, while the United Kingdom slashed its overall foreign aid budget following its decision to leave the European Union. This puts increasing pressure on the United States to increase humanitarian funding for urgent and life-threatening emergencies at a time when other traditional donors have stepped back. The contribution from the United Arab Emirates of $85 million for the humanitarian response in Ethiopia is welcome, but efforts to identify new partners are clearly a priority.

The Somalia Humanitarian Response Plan 2022 seeks $1.46 billion, yet Somalia has only received $48.8 million (just over 3 percent) because of donor fatigue, long-standing concerns over corruption, and fears of aid being misappropriated by al Shabaab militants. Conversely, Kenya’s three-month flash appeal for $139.5 million was fully funded, though more will be required throughout 2022. 

In the absence of a regional humanitarian appeal and with multiple parallel appeals from UN specialized agencies and NGOs, it is unclear what the key priorities are. This warrants attention from UN leaders to reduce competition and ensure that funds that are made available have the most impact. Affected countries, the United Nations, NGOs, and other organizations should develop coordinated funding streams in real time, as domestic and international challenges consume the collective bandwidth of political leaders, donors, and aid agencies alike. With projections that ongoing violence in northern Ethiopia and south-central Somalia will continue in parallel to worsening drought, the worst is yet to come for the Horn of Africa.

David Del Conte is a senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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