Unprecedented drought leaves Somalia on the brink of famine

Environment | Deserts

By George Blake, Kingfisher Writer

Published December 3rd, 2022

Somalia is in the midst of a brutal drought following a fifth ‘failed’ rainy season in a row, crop failures and livestock mortality will push millions into food insecurity. In parts of Somalia, the situation is so bad that many now face the prospect of famine. In 2022, no country should be at risk of famine, it represents an abject failure of global climate and development governance.

The United Nations predict that roughly 300,000 people will be living in famine conditions by December, with some aid workers arguing the threshold at which a famine should be declared has already been passed.

Children are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, this malnourished child is waiting for emergency treatment from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) | United Nations Photo/ Flickr

Back in 2011, approximately 260,000 died due to famine across Somalia, with many dying before famine was officially declared. The UN is already recording alarming mortality rates in southern Somalia. Following the 2011 famine, regional leaders (supported by the international community) pledged to end drought emergencies by 2022.

So why does Somalia face widespread famine again?

Firstly, it is worth defining what famine conditions actually mean. The UN has a specific set of criteria for defining food insecurity, with ‘famine’ being the fifth and most severe category.

Famine or catastrophe conditions are defined when a region has ‘at least 20% of households facing an extreme lack of food, at least 30% of children suffering from acute malnutrition, and two people for every 10,000 dying each day due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease.’

‘Back in 2011, 260,000 died due to famine across Somalia, with many dying before famine was officially declared.’

While famines garner the most international attention and aid, one should not lose sight of the fact that regions classed as category four (emergency conditions) are also subject to ‘very high acute malnutrition and excess mortality,’ and households in category three conditions experience ‘high or above-usual acute malnutrition.’

In Somalia alone, 6.7 million people (40% of Somalia’s population of 16 million) are set to enter category three, which essentially means they are at high risk of starvation, and 2.2 million will enter category four (very high death rates associated with acute malnutrition). These statistics only cover Somalia, food and water insecurity is a wider problem across much of the Horn of Africa.

In the coming months, up to 37 million people face acute food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, including 20% of Ethiopia’s population.

Much of the Horn of Africa (pictured) is dryland, and is highly vulnerable to any reductions in rainfall. | Mapsland

The food insecurity seen across the Horn of Africa is a result of five ‘failed’ rainy seasons in a row. In this context, a ‘failed’ rainy season simply means that rainfall was significantly below average rather than no rainfall at all.

The Horn of Africa has two rainy seasons per year, the first is March to May and the second is October to December. The first season to see below-average rainfall was October to December 2020, each of the four following rainy seasons also saw below-average rainfall.

The below figure shows the average monthly rainfall anomaly (in millimetres) between March and May 2022 (one of the driest seasons on record). The right-hand scale shows that the average monthly rainfall across most of the Horn of Africa (black box) was 10 to 40 millimetres lower than normal. This may not seem like a lot, but the average monthly rainfall received in a normal year is between 50 to 60 millimetres.

This was the fourth ‘failed’ rainy season in a row, and now climate modellers project that the current October to December rainy season will also produce below-average rainfall.

Rainfall was substantially lower across the Horn of Africa between March and May 2022, which was the fourth rainy season to fail in a row. | George Blake / Climate Explorer

The drought has resulted in widespread crop failures and the deaths of millions of livestock, with another 25 million emaciated livestock at risk of dying. Livestock are dying due to a lack of vegetation and water, which spells disaster for a population heavily dependent on livestock for income and nutrition, particularly children.

While the effects of the drought have been compounded by recent shocks such as locust swarms, conflict, disease outbreaks, and the COVID-19 pandemic, it alone was severe enough to cause huge food insecurity.

This five-season drought is unprecedented and has been amplified by climate change. Rapid warming of surface waters in the western Pacific exacerbates a natural climate phenomenon known as La Niña, which is associated with dry conditions over the Horn of Africa.

Future climate projections for the region are subject to significant uncertainties, particularly regarding water resources. However, higher temperatures will lead to higher crop desiccation rates and livestock water demands, and recent trends also show a tendency towards more extreme wet and dry rainy seasons.

Millions of livestock have died or are now highly emaciated following a fifth ‘failed’ rainy season in a row. | United Nations Photo / Flickr

Although future projections are uncertain, the Horn of Africa is likely to face increasingly more common and severe droughts. This could spell disaster for a highly vulnerable region, especially Somalia, which is the second most vulnerable country in the world, after Niger.

This is despite countries such as Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia accounting for tiny percentages of global emissions, Africa on the whole only accounts for 2% of total global emissions. The current drought and famine perfectly highlight the profound injustices associated with climate change, with those least responsible bearing the brunt of its impacts.

This latest drought has reinvigorated calls for increased funding towards adaptation in the region, and was used as an key example used by loss and damage compensation advocates at COP27.

Eventually, an agreement was reached to establish a loss and damage fund which will be used to compensate countries already feeling the effects of climate change. However, many details are still yet to be agreed, principally who will pay into the fund, how much will be provided, and how will the money be delivered.

These details need to be settled as a matter of utmost importance, as famine should not be happening now and cannot be allowed to happen again in the future. It is hoped that tragedy in Somalia can be avoided, and that it will act as a catalyst for global action.

Featured Image: UNICEF Ethiopia | Flickr

Busby J. (2022) ‘Droughts don’t need to result in famine: Ethiopia and Somalia show what makes the difference.’ The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/droughts-dont-need-to-result-in-famine-ethiopia-and-somalia-show-what-makes-the-difference-193241 [Accessed November 9th 2022]

Hallwright J. (2022) ‘Famine should not exist in 2022, yet Somalia faces its worst yet. Wealthy countries, pay your dues.’ The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/famine-should-not-exist-in-2022-yet-somalia-faces-its-worst-yet-wealthy-countries-pay-your-dues-191952 [Accessed November 9th 2022]

Mahapatra R. (2022) ‘East Africa drought: ‘Climate change is making La Niña impact severe.’ DownToEarth. Available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/interviews/africa/east-africa-drought-climate-change-is-making-la-ni-a-impact-severe--83283 [November 9th 2022]

UN News (2022) ‘Horn of Africa faces most ‘catastrophic’ food insecurity in decades, warns WHO.’ UN News. Available at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/08/1123812 [Accessed November 9th 2022]

United Nations (2022) ‘Somalia: Acute Food Insecurity Situation July - September 2022 and Projection for October - December 2022.’ Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. Available at: https://www.ipcinfo.org/ipc-country-analysis/details-map/en/c/1155883/?iso3=SOM [Accessed November 9th 2022]

United Nations (2022) ‘What is famine?’ Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. Available at: https://www.ipcinfo.org/famine-facts/en/ [Accessed November 9th 2022]

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