18 May 2022 - Global

One person likely dying from hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged East Africa as world again fails to heed warnings

Leylo*, 28, photographed with her four-month-old son, Assad*, and her 12-year-old son, Yuusuf*, in a camp in Baidoa

One person is likely dying of hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, according to estimates by Oxfam and Save the Children in a report published today highlighting the world’s repeated failure to stave off preventable disasters.

More than a decade since the delayed response to the 2011 famine that killed more than 260,000 people in Somalia – half of them children under five – the world is once again failing to avert catastrophic hunger in East Africa. Today, nearly half a million people across parts of Somalia and Ethiopia are facing famine-like conditions. In Kenya, 3.5 million people are suffering extreme hunger. Urgent appeals are woefully funded, as other crises, including the war in Ukraine, are worsening the region’s escalating hunger crisis.

The number of people experiencing extreme hunger in the three countries has more than doubled since last year – from over 10 million to more than 23 million today. This is against a backdrop of crippling debt that more than tripled in under a decade – from $20.7 billion in 2012 to $65.3 billion by 2020 – sucking these countries’ resources from public services and social protection.

The report, Dangerous Delay 2: The Cost of Inaction, in partnership with the Jameel Observatory, examines the changes in the humanitarian aid system since 2011. It finds that despite an improved response to the 2017 East Africa drought when widespread famine was averted, the national and global responses have largely remained too slow and too limited to prevent a repeat today.

“Despite worsening warning signs over time, world leaders have responded woefully – too late and still too little – leaving millions of people facing catastrophic hunger. Starvation is a political failure”, said Gabriella Bucher, Oxfam International’s Executive Director.

Entrenched bureaucracies and self-serving political choices continue to curtail a unified global response, despite improved warning systems and efforts by local NGOs, the report finds.

G7 and other rich nations have turned inwards in response to various global crises, such as COVID-19 and more recently the Ukraine conflict, including by backtracking on their promised aid to poor countries and driving them to edge of bankruptcy with debt.

East African governments bear their own responsibility, having delayed their responses and often refused to acknowledge the scale of the crisis on their doorsteps. They have not adequately invested in agriculture or social protection systems to help people better cope with the drivers of hunger, including climatic and economic shocks.

The report sheds light on the continued failure of donors and aid agencies to prioritise local organisations at the forefront of the crisis response, which slowed down the response further, even when they were ready to act.

Climate-induced drought, compounded by conflicts forcing people out of their homes, and COVID-19 economic turmoil, has decimated people’s last ability to cope. The Ukraine conflict has also driven already soaring food prices to their highest level ever recorded, making food unattainable for millions.

Save the Children’s Regional Spokesperson for East and Southern Africa, Shako Kijala, said:

“We’re seeing horrific numbers of severe malnutrition with 5.7 million children currently acutely malnourished, including more than 1.7 million who are severely acutely malnourished. And with the UN warning that more than 350,000 could die in Somalia if we do not act, the clock is ticking and every minute that passes is a minute too close to starvation and possible death of a child. How can we live with that if we let it happen again?”

Jane Meriwas, the director of Samburu Women Trust in Kenya, said:

“The situation is devastating. Both human beings and livestock are at risk of dying, already children, pregnant mothers and elderly in some parts of Marsabit and Samburu Counties in Kenya are being reported as dying. If urgent intervention is not provided now, we are likely to witness even more death”.

Climate change has made this La Niña-induced drought in the Horn of Africa more severe and prolonged, now the worst in 40 years. The drought has eroded economic reserves, herd size, and human health and is a major factor behind the alarming numbers of people without enough to eat daily. Yet, the region is one of the least responsible for the climate crisis, emitting collectively 0.1% of global carbon emissions.

“There are no cows left. They all died. We have a few camels and goats that have survived the drought, but we are afraid we might lose them if the drought continues. We are afraid that people will start dying of famine as there is no food," said Ahmed Mohamud, a pastoralist from Wajir, Kenya.

Just two per cent ($93.1 million) of the current $4.4bn UN appeal for Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia has formally been funded to date. In 2017, those same countries had received $1.9 billion in emergency funding. Although donors promised $1.4 billion of aid last month, it is shameful that only $377.5 million of that was new money.

“People are starving not because the world lacks food or money, but for a dismal lack of political courage. Rich nations successfully, and rightly, raised over $16bn in one month to address the terrible crisis in Ukraine. They pumped over $16 trillion dollars into their economies in response to COVID-19 to support those in need. Countries can mobilize resources to prevent human suffering – but only if they choose to,” said Bucher.

“Donors, development agencies, governments and the private sector must work together with affected communities to prepare and respond to risks, rather than wait for crises to spiral out of control,” says Guyo Roba, Head of the Jameel Observatory.

Oxfam and Save the Children are calling for urgent action to tackle the catastrophic hunger crisis in East Africa:

  • To help save lives now, G7 and Western leaders must immediately inject money to meet the $4.4 billion UN appeal for Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, and ensure the funding is flexible enough to be used where it is most needed.
  • Donors must guarantee that at least 25 per cent of funds go to local responders at the heart of response.
  • Governments of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia must scale up social protection to help people cope with multiple shocks. They should invest at least 10 per cent of their budgets in agriculture, with a particular focus on smallholder and female farmers, as they had agreed in the African Union Malabo Declaration of 2014.
  • National governments must prioritize lives over politics, by acknowledging and acting on early warnings. They should be quicker to declare national emergencies, shift national resources to those most in need, and invest in response to climate related shocks.
  • Rich polluting nations must pay East Africa for its climate loss and damage. They must also cancel 2021-2022 debts for those countries, in order to free up resources to support people to mitigate and adapt to climate shocks.

Acting early on hunger not only saves lives, but prevents economic loss. USAID estimates that every dollar invested in early response and resilience in Somalia saves three dollars by preventing income and livestock losses.

Notes to the editor

  • Download the latest report 'Dangerous Delay 2: The Cost of Inaction'
  • “A Dangerous Delay: The cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa” report published in 2012 can be found here.
  • To calculate the daily deaths, we used the crude death rate, which is (0.5-0.99) per 10,000 people in IPC3 of food insecurity as specified in The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Global Partners (2021), as per Technical Manual Version 3.1: Evidence and Standards for Better Food Security and Nutrition Decisions.Then, we subtracted the normal daily death rate of 0.22 per 10,000 people per day; this figure is based on data from the UN and from national, EU, and Pacific Community statistical offices.
  • Across the three countries, the crude death rate is at least 627-1,802 per day, 0.44-1.25 per minute, i.e., between one every 2.5 minutes and one every 48 seconds. These figures are conservative, since they are based on the crude death rate for IPC 3, and do not take into account the higher crude death rates for IPC 4 and 5.
  • According to IPC (see IPC Population Tracking Tool) and the FAO-ICPAC Food Security and Nutrition Working Group, 22.4 - 23.4m people across Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia will face high levels of acute hunger (IPC3 and above), including almost half a million in famine-like conditions. This includes: 7.4 million people across Ethiopia (as per the projection for July-September 2021) – including over 400,000 living in famine-like conditions (IPC 5); 5.5-6.5 million people in South East Ethiopia (April 2022 estimate), 3.5 million people from Kenya (March-June 2022 projection); and 6 million people are from Somalia, including 81,100 at IPC5 (April-June 2022 projection).
  • Child malnutrition figures from April 2022 Horn of Africa Drought update
  • According to FAO, global food prices reached an all-time high in March 2022, on average, the cost of a local food basket has increased by 23 percent across the entire Eastern Africa region in one year (Feb 2021/2022). But Ethiopia and Somalia have seen 66 and 36 percent rise in their food basket cost between Feb2021/2022.
  • In March-June 2021, the total number of people in IPC3+ across Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia was 10,183,133, according to IPC info.
  • Comparative data between the 2011 famine and 2022 shows that 9 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia experienced acute hunger (IPC 3+), today that figure is between 22.4 and 23.4 million people, according to UNOCHA and IPC info.
  • The Ukraine crisis received $6.7bn (in non-military aid) from USA, and the EU Stand for Ukraine initiative was over 10bn euros to date.
  • In the COVID-19 emergency, governments used the budget promptly and decisively. Since 2020, countries have announced $16 trillion in fiscal actions. Source: IMF 2021
  • The world’s farmers produce more than enough food to feed everyone (see the UN SDG news ).
  • Global carbon emissions are from Our World in Data.
  • Data on UN humanitarian appeals and donor funding are from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Financial Tracking Service.

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