Why is there hunger in the Horn of Africa? Food shortage explained

What are we going to eat today? In the Horn of Africa, the answer is increasingly ‘nothing’. More than 14 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia do not have enough to eat. How did this come about? And what can we do about it? Roel Blesgraaf, water expert from the Red Cross in Ethiopia, explains.

This Somali shepherd sees his pet die while fleeing the drought.

Water shortages and floods

One of the biggest culprits in the food shortage in the Horn of Africa is extreme weather. Climate change is making the weather in the Horn of Africa increasingly extreme. Droughts are getting longer and longer, and at the same time floods are becoming more devastating. Climate scientists expect irregular weather to become the norm in this region.

The harvest failed and the livestock died due to extreme drought in 2016 and 2017. Fortunately, the rain brought some relief: The crops started to grow again and people and their livestock were able to recover. But the drought never lasts long here. The first half of 2019 was again bone dry and the problems started again.

Until the end of 2019, the sky broke out. But this time the rain did not stop. Violent floods wiped out houses, livestock and crops from the face of the earth. Hurricane Pawa in Somalia pushed the water further up from the sea. The rainwater that the people had been eagerly waiting for was suddenly the enemy. Hundreds of thousands fled.

Grasshoppers took advantage of the wet conditions where they easily reproduced. Giant swarms spread rapidly across East Africa and ate up the last crops. The refugees from the floods again fled in search of food.

In 2020, the drought returned and it did not rain enough for four seasons. It’s the worst drought in 40 years. Crops grow almost nowhere, millions of cattle are dead, more than 14 million people are starving, 5 million children are malnourished. These numbers will rise rapidly if people do not get food and drinking water on time. About 70% of the population depend on their own animals and crops.

Flooding of Lake Baringo in Kenya after heavy rain.

Hours walk for water

Sometimes people have to walk for hours after a few jerry cans of water. And that water is not always clean, which makes people sick. Parents pick up their children from school so they can lead their pets to green pastures and water, hundreds of miles away. And parents marry girls to make a living from dowry as a family. The psychosocial impact of the drought is also enormous.

The Red Cross is working on water supplies in these vulnerable areas. For example, water expert Roel Blesgraaf is monitoring a water project in eastern Ethiopia. In late 2020, Roel moved from the Netherlands to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, the pandemic exacerbated poverty in the area.

Roel Blesgraaf, water expert for the Red Cross in Ethiopia.


Conflicts are driving even more food insecurity in the Horn of Africa. Roel had only been living in Addis Ababa for a few weeks when a conflict broke out in northern Ethiopia and it is still ongoing. At the same time, ethnic conflicts flared up in the south. Suddenly, Roel lived between conflicts.

Roel saw the devastating consequences. Houses, clinics and schools were destroyed by violence. Thousands of people fled. As the Red Cross, we immediately began to help those affected by the violence. For example, we started working in southern Ethiopia with clean drinking water, toilets in clinics and improving ambulance transport. ”

Northern Ethiopia is still difficult to access due to the violence. The Tigray region is cut off from communication, electricity and water. Roel: “The situation in the north is very bad. Tigray consists of a mountain area and is relatively unaffected by the drought, but due to the political stalemate in the conflict, there is also little food there. In addition, battle lines move fast. It is difficult for us to give the right help at the right time. Red Cross staff and volunteers have also had to flee the violence, some have lost relatives. “In the Amhara region under Tigray alone, 13,000 children have been orphaned, a sign of the seriousness of the conflict.”

These northern Ethiopians have returned to their destroyed homes after fleeing the violence.

Food invaluable

It is not just the drought and the conflicts that have caused food prices to skyrocket. The current crisis in Ukraine is pushing up prices even more. The Horn of Africa imports a third of its grain from Ukraine and Russia. But those imports are now stagnating due to the crisis. The price of grain rose by 59% within two weeks after the outbreak of the crisis. Import prices for fuel, fertilizer and steel have also risen. Sky-high inflation will be even higher the longer the crisis in Ukraine lasts.

Solutions in the short and long term

To help the people of the Horn of Africa, the Red Cross provides food, financial support and, of course, clean drinking water. But Roel also stresses how crucial it is to have long-term solutions. Better water management plays an important role here.

The Red Cross has launched various projects to make the population more resilient to extreme weather conditions. For example, we design warning systems that warn farmers of extreme weather. That way, they can prepare for that weather, for example, by harvesting their crops earlier. In addition, we build stone dams to prevent the soil from being washed away during heavy rain. This also creates fertile farmland. We also help grow crops that are more resistant to extreme weather.

A Kenyan mother has taken her malnourished child to the hospital.

Investment in education

But according to Roel, a better level of education for the population is necessary for a truly sustainable solution. “Lack of qualified staff makes it difficult to predict future climate change. Ethnicity and background now often determine people’s chances, not qualifications. I really hope that there will be room to invest in education when the drought is gone and peace returns. ”

Despite the difficult situation, Roel has hope. “Ethiopia has a rich history, people are proud and robust. From my apartment, I look on the one hand at a new construction project where the young people are working hard on the reconstruction, and on the other hand at a garbage dump where people sort plastic, they get through it together. People make a deep impression on me. It is important that we help them survive this crisis so that they can continue to build a future. ”

Help too!

In the Horn of Africa, 14 million people have too little to eat. That is why we provide food, water and medical care. In addition, we are happy to help them ensure that extreme weather has less of an impact in the future. Do you want to help too? donate further Giro 6251 (IBAN: NL58INGB0000006251)

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