Drought in the Horn of Africa

The humanitarian emergency in drought-affected regions of the Horn of Africa has taken a turn for the worse. The United Nations has declared that a famine is under way in the two hardest-hit areas of Somalia, the southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions. The strict benchmarks that must be surpassed in order for famine status to be reached give a hint to the scale of the crisis. More than 30 percent of children must be suffering from acute malnutrition, two adults per 10,000 people must be dying of starvation each day, and 20 percent of the general population must consume less than 2,100 kilocalories of food each day. Overall, more than 11 million people are thought to be in need of emergency aid throughout Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. The drought has triggered destabilizing population flows throughout the region and placed stress on already vulnerable states. Somalis in particular are leaving their homes at the rate of thousands a day to seek refuge in the war-torn capital of Mogadishu, as well as refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.

Q1: How serious is the humanitarian crisis?

A1: Erratic rainfall has afflicted eastern Africa for decades. However, this season has seen the lowest levels of rain since the 1950s, leaving the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti at the center of what the UN Refugee Agency has called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. According to the U.S. Department of State, the drought has affected an estimated 4.5 million Ethiopians, along with 3.6 million Kenyans, 3 million Somalis, and according to the United Nations, well over 100,000 people in Djibouti. U.S. government officials and others have suggested that the situation is expected to get worse before getting better.

Refugee camps in northern Kenya and southeastern Ethiopia are swelling from the influx of Somalis fleeing the worst-affected region in south-central Somalia. Up to 80 percent of the new refugees are women and children. Many have walked tens of miles over several weeks, arriving at the rate of more than 3,000 each day. Large numbers of the arrivals are close to death; nearly 50 percent of entrants to the Ethiopian camps show signs of acute malnutrition. In northern Kenya, the government has been forced to open an extension of the Dabaab refugee camp, already the largest in the world, to accommodate the influx.

Q2: Why has Somalia been particularly hard hit?

A2: Decades of violence and political instability within Somalia have exhausted people’s ability to cope with a natural disaster on this scale. The combined effects of conflict and drought have caused an estimated 7.5 million Somalis to flee their homes. Somalia has lacked an effective central government since the early 1990s, leaving its people largely to fend for themselves. Though it enjoys international support, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) lacks popular support within Somalia and only controls pockets of territory, mostly thanks to a large peacekeeping contingent of troops from the African Union. Much of southern and central Somalia is under the control of Al Shabaab, an extremist group with links to Al Qaeda. This region has been the worst affected by the drought.

Al Shabaab has compounded the effects of the disaster by restricting humanitarian access to its territory. In January 2010, the UN World Food Program suspended operations in the south because of unacceptable conditions placed by the group on its operations. Foreign aid workers had to withdraw because of threats to their safety. Al Shabaab has been forced to reconsider its position following pressure from clan elders and community leaders. In early July, it issued a statement saying that local and international aid agencies were welcome to return. It remains unclear whether their activities will be impeded, but in recent days the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has tested the waters by airlifting supplies to the town of Baidoa.

Q3: What is the United States doing?

A3: The United States has been warning of an impending food crisis in the Horn of Africa for some time. This enabled emergency plans to be scaled up in advance. So far this year, the United States has given $430 million worth of food and non-food emergency assistance to the region, and following the UN declaration that parts of Somalia were in the grip of famine, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that an extra $28 million would be directed toward Somali victims of the disaster. Nonetheless, the scale of the emergency far exceeds the resources available to deal with it, and there has been criticism that some other international donors are failing to step up.

In the worst-hit areas of Somalia, the United States is presented with a policy dilemma. How to get emergency assistance to the estimated 2.8 million people who need it but who reside in regions controlled by a U.S.-designated terrorist group, Al Shabaab, which has a history of demanding payments in order to facilitate aid distribution? U.S. policymakers are desperate to avoid doing anything that might inadvertently enable Al Shabaab to tighten its grip on power, particularly at a time when it has been struggling militarily. Officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have said that a risk mitigation strategy is in place to ensure that aid reaches those who most need it, but concrete details of how such a complex operation can be successfully mounted and monitored are in short supply.

Richard Downie is fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Farha Tahir is program coordinator and research associate.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Farha Tahir

Richard Downie