The creeping threat of famine continues to stalk the Horn of Africa. In a region plagued by acute conflict and governmental instability, the UN estimates that some 20 million people across Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, and South Sudan are now endangered by malnutrition and starvation. So far, though, this emerging catastrophe has remained mostly invisible, drowned out by louder headlines. As a result, decisive action has been sorely lacking. About 6.2 million people in Somalia alone – half the population of the country – are at severe risk unless urgently needed relief measures are immediately taken. The Somali government is desperately appealing to the international community for aid, but its pleas are going largely unheeded. The last major famine in Somalia struck in 2011, killing some 260,000 people.
The situation in East Africa has been growing increasingly critical in recent years. Kemal Birru, Programs Director for Zakat Foundation of America, visited Ethiopia and Kenya during a field visit in 2016. At that time, he reported seeing desperate families line up for food from charity groups, while other villages reported having to rely on muddy, unsanitary water from dilapidated wells in urgent need of repair. In what is becoming a disturbingly routine sight, dried carcasses of dead animals littered the parched countryside. Mr. Birru knew the situation was dire, but was not prepared to confront such shocking visible evidence of it.
“I did not expect to see the dead bodies of so many animals, strewn across the ground like that,” he recounted. “It was a chilling experience.”
He added that government agencies and relief organizations in the country were appealing vigorously for international aid, but not enough people were listening; and the scale of the disaster was not recognized by the global community. Now as then, not enough people are heeding the clear warning signals coming from the suffering communities in these countries.
Fortunately, short-term programs to alleviate the damage of a rapidly escalating crisis are within reach. The most severely affected communities must be quickly and efficiently provided with food, water, and other vital supplies they need to make it through the worst of the coming dry season. ZF is currently mobilizing to expand its program to provide immediate food and water assistance to the most severely afflicted communities in Somalia.
Ultimately, however, international assistance must transition from direct food and water aid to programs that help local agencies and institutions build out the infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events. The task of switching from direct aid to building resiliency will be challenging, and will require close cooperation between leading international aid organizations and local governmental agencies. Until such a comprehensive plan to address the changing climate is available, workable, near-term solutions will continue to be urgently needed for countries facing imminent danger.
It is clear that action must come quickly to avert a potentially unprecedented disaster. Time is short, and the international aid network must act in concert to develop an actionable response to this impending disaster.