Millions of lives at risk as famine rages in the Horn of Africa
In drought-stricken Turkana County in northern Kenya, a group of children carried sacks of palm fruit on their heads as they crossed parched land back to their small village.
They travel more than 20 miles to pick the small, bulbous fruits of the African oil palm several times a week. This will be their breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of the children, Ekiru, said the last time he ate anything other than palm fruit was when a goat starved to death and his village split the carcass.
“There’s nothing else,” Ekiru’s grandmother, Nakaleso Lobuin Nipayan, told ABC News. “When the fruit of the palm tree disappears, we will die.”
Famine is just around the corner for many more here. According to the World Food Programme, the food aid arm of the United Nations.
“If they don’t get help, we will see them fall into what we call severe acute malnutrition,” Lauren Landis, WFP’s country director for Kenya, told ABC News. “And there’s the death threat.”
According to a report published Wednesday by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the number and duration of droughts have increased by 29% worldwide since 2000. While droughts account for only 15% of natural disasters in the world, they took away the greatest human tool — an estimated 650,000 deaths from 1970 to 2019. This year, more than 2.3 billion people face water stress, while nearly 160 million children are exposed to severe and prolonged droughts, according to the report.
The report, titled ‘Drought In Numbers, 2022’, warned that unless action is scaled up, around 700 million people are at risk of being displaced by drought by 2030; it is estimated that one in four children will live in areas with extreme water shortages by 2040, and droughts could affect more than three quarters of the world’s population by 2050.
After consecutive poor rainy seasons, the Horn of Africa is facing what has been described as its worst drought since 1981. Aid workers fear the outcome could be deadlier than the severe drought that has affected the whole of East Africa between 2011 and 2012, claiming the lives of around 260,000 people.
In Kenya, drought has been declared a national emergency. Between 80% and 90% of reservoirs and dams are drying up in Turkana, Kenya’s largest and most northwestern county. It is also one of the hottest and driest. Communities here can no longer survive on farming, fishing or herding.
ABC News traveled to Turkana County with the International Rescue Committee in early May. At an IRC-run hospital in a refugee camp in the rural town of Kakuma, cases of malnutrition have quadrupled in recent months. The refugees had fled their homes in neighboring countries and entered Kenya, considered one of East Africa’s wealthiest economies, to find little food or water.
“People [are] coming from all over the region thinking they can find safety and food in Kenya,” Dr. Sila Monthe, who works at Kakuma refugee camp, told ABC News.[But] Kenya is in the midst of a drought and cannot really support all these people.”
The hospital’s pediatric wing is reaching capacity, currently averaging 20 admissions per day, according to Monthe. Many of the children treated here show the telltale signs of severe malnutrition, some even being too weak to cry.
“People are dying just trying to get to the hospital,” Monthe added.
Although the success rate of the pediatric wing’s stabilization service is consistently above 85%, Monthe said that means 15% of patients – mostly young children – still die.
“Because they’re so malnourished, the whole body shuts down,” she told ABC News. “That includes the digestive tract, so they’re usually unable to digest food.”
The situation in the Horn of Africa has also been aggravated by the fallout from a war on another continent, thousands of miles away.
Since Russian forces invaded neighboring Ukraine in February, the cost of grain, fuel and fertilizers has skyrocketed around the world, worsening hunger crises. Many East African countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for a significant percentage of these agricultural products, according to data collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The Kenyan government also raised the price of petroleum products for March, April and May, citing the conflict in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the cost of WFP’s local food basket – the minimum food needs per family per month – has increased by 23% over the past year, partly due to the war in Ukraine.
Back in the village of Ekiru, near the town of Lorugum, he and his grandmother crushed palm fruits against rocks to extract the fibrous, slightly sweet flesh.
“It will sustain them normally until God remembers them,” the grandmother, Nipayan, told ABC News, noting that she had “never seen” a drought as “bad” as the one. -this.
Suddenly storm clouds rolled overhead and it started to rain.
“I feel happy,” said Ekiru, whose name means “rain” in the Turkana language.
But sporadic and localized rainfall is not enough, even if it triggers a deluge in the village of Ekiru.
“We were hoping that this rain would be good enough to be able to pull some of the population out of the situation they were in,” said Shashwat Saraf, regional emergency director for the International Rescue Committee for East Africa, at ABC News. “But this rain also feeling and being below average will actually have catastrophic consequences for the population.”
“We are talking about the lives of millions of people in the region,” he added, “and I think we cannot put into words what this means for the people and families who are affected by this crisis”.
One of the goats belonging to Ekiru’s family died during recent heavy rains, providing them with a rare meal other than palm fruits. They once had 20 goats, but now they have only eight.
More than 3 million head of cattle have died in the Horn of Africa due to the current drought, according to the WFP. In Kenya alone, more than a million livestock deaths have been reported in several northern counties, including Turkana, ‘mainly due to starvation and disease’, according to the Authority’s April bulletin. national drought management.
“The animals will die,” Ekiru’s grandmother told ABC News, “and eventually the whole family will starve.”
Click here to help drought-affected families in East Africa through IRC, WFP and Save the Children.