The Horn of Africa was hit by the worst drought in 60 years just five years ago. Over 10 million people in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia were affected. The drought pushed fragile ecologies and economies into a catastrophic tipping point.
The 2011 drought intensified poverty, deepened malnutrition, exacerbated conflict over pasture, water and livestock. Local economies were shattered. The magnitude of hunger, malnutrition and the scale of death moved the world to act.
But, as always, we responded too late. Moreover, the scale of response was not sufficient to restore the social, economic and ecological assets necessary for recovery and to build a capacity for coping with future droughts.
Today the Horn of Africa faces not the worst drought but the worst humanitarian crises since the creation of the United Nations. Over 20 million are hungry, malnourished and fighting for their lives. According to the UN, more than 2.7 million people in Kenya face starvation and the number could top four million in the next month.
About 1.4 million children in Africa and Yemen could die. Those that survive will endure irreversible physical and cognitive damage. Millions of newborns and children under the age of five are at risk of crippling malnutrition and death.
Think about the tens of millions of children who suffer permanent cognitive impairment or drop out of school. Half of the over 60 million children out of school globally are in Africa.
Here is the ridiculous part. The early warning for the drought and the humanitarian crisis that has gripped Africa and Yemen was available nearly 24 months ago. For Somalia and South Sudan, it was evident as early as 2014 that we were on the cusp of a catastrophe. But it is only last Friday, March 10, when UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the Security Council that $4.4 billion was needed to deal with the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN. This is both incredulous and irresponsible. Why did we wait so long?
Drought is obviously natural. But there is nothing natural about the resulting famine, the hunger, malnutrition, morbidity and mortality we see in Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan and parts of Kenya. This shameful scale of starvation, disease and death, especially of children, women and the elderly, is unconscionable because it is man-made.
South Sudan emerged from a 25-year civil war only to be embroiled in murderous ethnic power struggle 18 months after Independence. Somalia is staggered by a brutal feud among its clans and has not had a functional state. This is further complicated by al Shabaab. Northeastern Nigeria is a Boko Haram caliphate.
Decades of marginalisation and weak coordination between the national and county governments have left northern Kenya vulnerable to the impacts of drought.
Virulent conflict, poor coordination and incapacity for timely response at the state and international levels have turned drought into the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. The scale of starvation and death we see today is unconscionable and immoral.
Dr. Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University
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