How climate change is helping fuel a massive hunger crisis in East Africa

Droughts are not new to East Africa. However, abnormally high temperatures in the region are linked to climate change and can be deadly for livestock. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam
Droughts are not new to East Africa. However, abnormally high temperatures in the region are linked to climate change and can be deadly for livestock. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Nearly 11 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya face terrifying food shortages. A massive drought has killed off crops and cattle throughout the region. Millions, many already in poverty, have been left with almost nothing.

Climate scientists and activists have warned for years now that climate change would cause or intensify crisis like this one.

After looking at the most recent research and consulting with various experts, we can say that climate change has made a bad situation worse.

The climate change link

Droughts are not new to East Africa. However, abnormally high temperatures in the region are linked to climate change. Greenhouse gases, from burning fossil fuels or deforestation, for example, trap heat in our atmosphere and raise the Earth’s temperature. Globally, the last three years have been the hottest ever recorded.

These higher temperatures have intensified the drought.

Higher temperatures increase evaporation, meaning soil and plants lose more water. Heat has contributed to crops withering in parched, cracked soil.

Excessive heat during a drought can be deadly for livestock.  In pastoral areas in northern Somalia and elsewhere, higher temperatures over the past six months have turned very poor rains last year into a terrible loss of soil moisture – helping to desiccate all available fodder for most of the region's pastoralists.

Many farmers and herders in the region that Oxfam has spoken with say the same thing: things have never been this bad. Families have left their homes and sought help in temporary settlements, where they receive barely enough food and water to survive.

Awad Ali, 87 years old, is the head of a family who is living now in the town of Garadag, Somaliland, where a thousand of families have come to live since the drought began. “I have seen many droughts in my lifetime, but this is the worst one”, he says. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

What needs to be done?

  • First, these communities need urgent help. The United Nations has asked for $1.9 billion to increase emergency food, water, and other resources to save lives. The international community needs to step up and meet this goal.
  • Second, we need commitments from the rest of the world to prevent these situations from reaching this point. The response time has been better than it was for the 2011 crisis, but it could still be improved. Not only does it reduce suffering but it is cheaper to help communities before they’re facing starvation.
  • Third, these crises hit people living in poverty hardest. National programs meant to help and improve the economic well-being of small farmers and herders means they’ll be better prepared to cope when the next drought hits.
  • Fourth and finally, it’s time for climate action. Even if all countries cut their greenhouse gasses by as much as they’ve promised, the world is going to get much hotter—more than 3 degrees Celsius. Governments need to make deeper cuts to reign in global warming, and they need to put forth the funds that these communities are owed to help them adapt to this new reality.

What is Oxfam doing?

We’re helping provide immediate, life-saving aid, as well as working on longer-term solutions.

For example, in Ethiopia, we’re providing safe, clean water to 318,000 people, and 84 schools and hospitals. We’ve launched a response to help at least 20,000 people with clean water, sanitation, and cash assistance for food in Somaliland.

To help communities in Kenya be ready for the next drought, Oxfam has helped repair and install solar-powered boreholes, which give them access to clean water for them and their livestock.

Droughts, even those which have been significantly worsened by climate change, don’t have to turn into humanitarian catastrophes.

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