An almost four-year drought in eastern Africa is threatening to plunge up to 20 million people into starvation and completely destroy an ancient way of life.
April and May are supposed to be the wettest months of the year for the Horn of Africa region covering southern Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti.
But these months have repeatedly stayed arid and dry over the last three years – and there is no sign of anything changing this year.
Unless the rains miraculously come late, this will be the worst drought the region has experienced in four decades.
People are thirsty, they cannot grow food, their livestock is dying and their nomadic way of life is disintegrating.
The drought is wreaking devastating run-on effects, including a malnutrition crisis which has left about 10 million children in the region in need of urgent medical care.
People are starving
Some 6.5 million people are at risk of severe food insecurity in Ethiopia alone, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates.
Nearly 1.5 million livestock herds have died across the whole region, making it impossible to farm.
Abdi Kabe Adan, 50, cried when he said: ‘Wells have run out of water, there are no pastures for animals to graze.
‘I have seen goats eating their own faeces, camels eating other camels. I have never seen that in my life.’
Children are the most at risk
The lack of food and water has left millions of children extremely vulnerable as they face not only malnutrition but diseases such as cholera – from drinking contaminated water.
While this is a threat to adults too, young people with less developed immune systems are in great danger if they get ill whilst being malnourished.
Many kids also go untreated for too long as parents are spread too thin to look after their children and take them to hospitals.
Mum Ayan Ibrahim Haroun, 45, said she watched her two-year-old daughter, Sabirin Abdi, suffer from constant coughing and swelling on her belly – possible symptoms of malnutrition – for a month before taking her to a doctor.
This is because choosing to seek help for her child meant leaving her livestock behind to die – meaning Ayan would be unable to feed her family.
When Ayan, from eastern Ethiopia, did eventually get help, she had to stay at the hospital with her daughter for 11 days, during which time she lost four out of 10 goats.
Similarly, 18-month-old Samyia spent a week struggling with vomiting and diarrhoea before her mum, Rokiya Adan Mahad, 39, could take her to a clinic.
The hunger and poverty have also led to an increase in child marriage ‘as families marry off their daughters in the hope they will be better fed and protected as well as to earn dowries,’ UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell said.
Way of life and families breaking down
Many of the people worst affected by this drought are nomads – communities who move with their animals, following the rain.
With no rain to follow and no way to feed their families, people are abandoning their traditions and heading into towns to find work and settling in villages.
Tarik Muhamad, 50, from the town of Gode in Ethiopia, said: ‘We were pure nomads before this drought, depending on the animals for meat, milk.
‘But nowadays most of us are settling down. There is no longer a future in pastoralism because there are no animals to be herded. Our nomadic life is over.’
Family units and relationships are also breaking down – as some resort to splitting up, or sending women and children to emergency camps while men stay with their cattle in a determined search for grass to graze.
Other men move into urban areas where they hope to find other types of work and some have fled as the responsibility to feed their families is too much.
Aren’t droughts common in Africa?
The Horn of Africa, like many other regions on the continent, has always gone through cycles of drought due to its hot weather and location on the planet.
But the frequency of droughts has dramatically increased – doubling from once every six years to once every three years in the east, since 2005.
This is not a new issue as non-profits, development agencies and scientists have been warning about it for more than a decade.
As early as 2012, southern regions in Ethiopia were reported by US development agency USAID to be receiving 15 to 20% less rainfall than in the 1970s.
There are even reports of Arabian camels, called dromedaries, losing their humps – the stores of fat which provide moisture so camels do not need to drink water for long periods of time.
Many scientists are blaming climate change for the Horn of Africa drying up.
The University of California’s Santa Barbara Climate Hazards Center previously did a study concluding a lack of rainfall in the region was largely because of water in the western Pacific Ocean warming up – a phenomenon called La Niña.
As the sea gets hotter, so does the air over Indonesia. It travels to east Africa and sinks after colliding with air travelling in the opposite direction from the Atlantic.
This sinking air is what creates the hot, dry weather that rejects the moisture which should come from the Indian Ocean.
The drought is expected to be a top priority when the UN starts its convention on combatting desertification on Monday, in the capital city of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.
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