As many as the residents in the Netherlands, roughly. Or like the combined population of Croatia, Ireland, Norway and Finland. As for its magnitude, the severe drought hitting the Horn of Africa and affecting more than 18 million of its people may end up being the worst in the last 50 years.
Just as the people of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan were about to recover from the 2011-12 crisis that wrecked the entire East Africa region (leaving more than 250,000 victims and 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance), the impact of new acute weather disruptions (mainly due to El Niño Southern Oscillation) increases fears for a famine catastrophe. Especially in Somalia, South Sudan and arid areas of northern Kenya, North-Eastern and Southern Ethiopia, in the last year the drought has brought acute food insecurity and turned over 15 million people in need of urgent food assistance. At the same time, internal displacement of approximately 4 million people in the same areas is believed to be drought-related, as well as the increase in the number of refugees hosted in the numerous camps across the borderlands of Kenya and Ethiopia (estimated at about 1.4 million). After three successive years of failed rains, the current scenario in many lowland areas of the Horn of Africa is increasingly alarming, due to deteriorating environmental conditions, decreasing farmers’ and pastoralists’ livelihoods and the intensification of weather alerts on the probability of a fourth consecutive year with rains below the expected level or even lack thereof. To many observers this protracted drought and food insecurity represent nothing but one of the possible predicted outcomes amid the extreme consequences of the long-term warming of the western Pacific Ocean, which is severely accelerating the drying rate of the region: global climate models and recent estimates show how the Horn of Africa is growingly hotter and drier (and hungrier, though), with unprecedented figures in the last 2,000 years.
Beyond its direct effects over water/food availability and its indirect repercussion over local conflict over increasingly scarce resources, the impact of drought has also been exacerbated by disease outbreaks (acute watery diarrhoea and cholera), long armed conflict (i.e. in Somalia) and institutional weaknesses, which have significantly contributed to raising the level of emergency and the need for immediate and adequate response. In this regard, the interested countries and the international community have activated a diverse range of response mechanisms in order to tackle the crisis and prevent further humanitarian disasters: among others, the EU Commission allocated over €230 million to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in 2017 (and initial financial relief of €75 million for 2018) while the U.S. Department of State recently announced a commitment of $400 million for the affected people of the same states. Nevertheless, despite the generosity of different donors, huge gaps persist and the humanitarian outlook in the region remains largely worrisome: while in 2017 the overall funding exceeded $2 billion (over the $3.5 billion needed), the United Nations 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan calls for nearly $2.9 billion, the largest part of which has yet to be secured.
In addition to the world’s changing climate and the financial gaps in humanitarian assistance, there are further crucial aspects that impinge on both causes and effects of the current situation of drought in the Horn of Africa. First, the tardy intervention in most of the affected areas and the consequent belated delivery of aid relief, muddled emergency plans and uncoordinated disaster response. As a matter of fact, no later than mid-2016 several medias - informed by local sources, NGOs and development practitioners - were already warning against the worsening of the conditions of populations living in and around arid and semi-arid areas in East Africa, the several failed rains in a row, the livestock losses and the pasture deterioration, the growing number of displaced people and the evidence of the first cases of waterborne diseases. Since this information was available far before the outbreak of the crisis, and given the harsh outcomes of those first unheard signs (in June 2016 an Ethiopian newspaper ran the headline “The worst is yet to come”), the tardiness of drought relief and recovery efforts is questionable. A second lesson learned from the current situation in the region is related to the short-sighted strategy of relying largely on the management, rather than prevention, of disasters and crises. Thus, managing the risk - not just the crisis - calls upon institution strengthening and capacity building, and urges for advancements in national systems, improvements in local institutions and a multi-level coordinated effort from the diversity of involved stakeholders.
If minimized, the risks of more frequent and harsher environmental hazards are likely to turn into humanitarian crises again and again, with the prospect of making large-scale drought, famine, conflict, and disease outbreaks the “new normal”. The Ethiopian farmer who - during the widespread 1983-85 famine, in developing coping mechanisms in lean times - recited Here, take my clothes, roll them up and eat them! I'm going where people have beans (excerpt from a popular poem of that time) probably felt that drought as exceptional, an out-of-ordinary event: would it be realistic - after more than thirty years talking about famine in the Horn of Africa - to keep the nearly-new normal as extraordinary? In the tangle of this very question lies not only the outcome of the present drought, but the actual future of (un)predictable humanitarian crises.