Why We Should Act NOW Before Famine Is Declared in the Horn of Africa

By Jocelyn Wyatt, CEO of Alight, and Adan Adar, Horn of Africa Director at Alight

Alight is a humanitarian aid and disaster relief organization working to provide health care, clean water, shelter, protection, and economic opportunity for displaced people in 19 countries around the world.


The Horn of Africa is on the brink of famine due to a kaleidoscope of local and global forces — ballooning inflation, climate change, COVID-19, supply chain disruptions, active armed conflicts, and political instability have all played a role.

But the biggest factor is the ongoing drought, which is the most severe drought to stymie the region in over 40 years. Several failed rainy seasons in Eastern and Central Africa have led to dwindled harvests. An estimated 40 million people across the Horn of Africa are food insecure, including 10 million children who are acutely malnourished. Communities have no access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food.

Famine is at the door; we should act before it comes.

The drought is causing mass suffering, food insecurity, and widespread displacement. By addressing the problem now, we can avoid preventable deaths, reduce long-term negative impacts, and put in place preventative measures.

The livelihoods of pastoralists and farmers have also been significantly affected by the drought, which has caused the deaths of over 7 million livestock, and crops and farms have dried up due to the lack of water and irrigation. These groups have had to flee their homes in search of food and water, with many seeking refuge in camps for internally displaced people.

Ninety-five-year-old Asha lost 300 goats and sheep since the drought began. Out of options, she walked for six days from her home in Eastern Somaliland to reach a camp for internally displaced people. Ayaan, a mother of 3, explained why she came to the camp: “I couldn’t feed my kids. I didn’t have a choice — it was either death or life.”

With climate change causing scorching temperatures and the lack of rain, droughts are becoming more common, and most communities in the Horn of Africa are food-insecure and facing the threat of starvation. 

A declaration of famine requires that each of the following conditions are met, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification: “20% of households face extreme food shortages, 30% of children suffer from malnutrition, and two people per 10,000 dies from starvation or disease and malnutrition.”

While these requirements are useful in determining who is already experiencing famine, they should not be used as a signifier of when countries facing impending famine need help. We only have to look at the current conditions to see that there are millions of people in need of human-worthy care, right now. 

In the 2011 East Africa drought, around half of the 250,000 lives that were lost in Somalia occurred before the famine declaration. At least 50% of those deaths were children. The current drought has already lasted longer and been more severe than both the 2011 and 2017 droughts. After four consecutive failed rainy seasons, and with the fifth season also projected to fail, Somalia is already in a precarious position.

By launching both immediate and long-term solutions across the Horn of Africa, we can work to avert famine. An immediate response including emergency water trucking, well rehabilitation, food distribution, therapeutic treatments for malnutrition, and shelters could prevent suffering and unnecessary deaths. With the drought causing widespread displacement, immunizations have been disrupted leading to an increase in measles, cholera, and other preventable diseases.

For this reason, there is a pressing need for sanitation structures and mobile health clinics to reach people in drought affected areas. Communities that are dealing with water scarcity also need help implementing hygiene awareness to ensure that people and livestock have separate water sources.

These emergency actions can help now, while long-term solutions are developed that can reduce drought effects, find sustainable water solutions, combat the effects of climate change, and improve livelihood standards.

As part of a long-term strategy to aid people displaced by drought, the Mayor of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is already envisioning a city plan that looks to integrate these communities into the city. This action would provide displaced people with housing and access to services, decreasing their likelihood of succumbing to malnutrition and disease.

While there are many challenges that lead nations to famine, there are also many solutions that can help circumvent it. Investing in and enacting preventative measures is more effective and ultimately less costly. One solution, providing communities with water catchment systems that would safely store water all year in preparation for the dry season, would alleviate some of the burdens caused by droughts. 

As these long-term solutions are developed, the international community adequately funding an emergency response now, before famine is declared, will save lives. There are millions of people in the Horn of Africa who are food-insecure and on the brink of starvation. Right now, support to humanitarian organizations is crucial. With the help of donors, organizations can scale up their crisis response and supply multifaceted services and resources.

Will you join us in fighting food insecurity and famine? 


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