Thirteen million people in the Eastern Horn of Africa face extreme drought. They need humanitarian aid and better warning systems.

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After three failed rainy seasons and now, projections of a fourth, on the eastern Horn of Africa, nearly 13 million people are facing acute hardship and food insecurity. The rains supposed to come this month in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, will likely not materialize — which would mark the longest drought the region has experienced in four decades.

These countries regularly have two rainy seasons: the heavier “gu” in March, April, and May, and the lighter “deyr” in October, November, and December. The 2020 and 2021 deyr seasons were significantly drier than average, as was the 2021 gu. The river basins there, the Shabelle-Juba, have seen their lowest rainfall totals since 1981, and both Kenya and Somalia have declared drought emergencies.

“Harvests are ruined, livestock are dying, and hunger is growing,” said Michael Dunford, Regional Director for the East African bureau of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in a statement.

This is the latest impact of climate change, which has brought extreme weather events to this vulnerable part of the world without the funding and infrastructure to handle them.

These countries regularly have two rainy seasons: the heavier “gu” in March, April, and May, and the lighter “deyr” in October, November, and December. The 2020 and 2021 deyr seasons were significantly drier than average, as was the 2021 gu. The river basins there, the Shabelle-Juba, have seen their lowest rainfall totals since 1981, and both Kenya and Somalia have declared drought emergencies.

“Harvests are ruined, livestock are dying, and hunger is growing,” said Michael Dunford, Regional Director for the East African bureau of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in a statement.

This is the latest impact of climate change, which has brought extreme weather events to this vulnerable part of the world without the funding and infrastructure to handle them.

According to meteorologists, one of the main causes of this prolonged drought is the warm (and warming) waters of the western Pacific Ocean, and the climatic phenomenon known as La Niña.

As we wrote in our past Weather Corner about La Niña:

  • La Niña, the counterpart of El Niño, is characterized by lower-than-usual ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific near the Equator. It’s the result of shifting wind patterns in the atmosphere, where the jet stream curves and shifts north, and it happens every 3–5 years.
  • La Niña often means a cold and stormier winter across the North, while the southern hemisphere stays warmer and drier than normal. La Niña also typically results in more rain than average through Indonesia, cooler and wetter weather in southern Africa, and drier weather in southeastern China, among other impacts. In the US, La Niña events often bring drier-than-average winter conditions to the Southwest, but can cause more severe storms in the Northern part of the country due to the change in the jetstream.

During La Niña conditions in the Western Pacific, the sea surface warms even more, making the air above the area near Indonesia warm as well and rise. Wind patterns carry it west to East Africa, where it meets cooler air coming from the Atlantic, and then it sinks, leading to hot temperatures and dry conditions. These also block incoming moisture from the Indian Ocean.

It didn’t use to be this way — according to National Geographic, between 1950 and 1997, only 28 percent of La Niña events were followed by poor rains in the eastern Horn of Africa. But from 1997–98’s El Niño onwards, approximately 80 percent of La Niña events are followed by a meager rainy season. That’s likely because temperatures in the western Pacific increased.

Plus, La Niñas are occurring with greater frequency as this part of the ocean warms: 12 were recorded in the three-plus decades between 1954 and 1998, but 12 have happened in the 24 years since then, including the last two years.

One non-rainy season means hardship. Two in a row can spell disaster. The back-to-back droughts in 2010 and 2011 in Somalia led to severe famine and the deaths of 260,000 people, half of them children.

Already, the impacts of this drought are dire: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that at least 60,000 animals have been lost to starvation, with milk production being 80% below average. Some of the hardest hit are nomadic pastoralists living in these countries — estimated at about 23 million — who roam in small tribal or extended family groups herding livestock and seeking fresh pastures for them to graze.

Others particularly at risk are the millions of smallholder farmers there, many of whom don’t have irrigation technology and rely on rainfall for their crops. FAO also said that maize and sorghum production decreased 15–25% in 2020 and 50% in 2021. That’s led to hikes in staple food prices, inflation, and less demand for agricultural labor, all amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, as clean drinkable water sources dry up, the threat of cholera and other diseases increases.

Last year, the UN warned that more than 100 million “extremely poor” people across Africa were being threatened by accelerating climate change that could also melt away the continent’s few glaciers within 20 years. It noted one estimate showing that gross domestic product per capita for 1991–2010 in Africa was on average 13.6% lower compared to what it would have been if climate change had not occurred. The UN is stepping in humanitarian assistance, both in the form of cash and food distribution for Africans. They also made investments and funded infrastructure after the 2011 drought. Still, preventing droughts and their impacts is incredibly difficult.

Adaptation efforts are necessary and urgently needed. According to one extreme weather scientist,Drought risk management rests upon three pillars; drought monitoring and forecast, vulnerability and risk assessment and drought preparedness, and mitigation and response … More interventions are needed that smooth out the disruptive impacts of droughts. This would help to break the link between climate shocks and cycles of poverty.”

He also recommended some early actions, including:

  • giving cash payments to local farmers and pastoralists,
  • providing drought-tolerant seeds,
  • undertaking animal health treatment campaigns,
  • supplying livestock supplementary feed,
  • ensuring schools and other local facilities with adequate drinking water,
  • and helping families via cash payments so they can afford to keep their children in school.

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