East Africa hunger crisis likely to lead to 1 death every 36 seconds, Oxfam warns

After four consecutive failed rainy seasons, harvests in East Africa have become so barren that one person is likely to die every 36 seconds from hunger, according to a new report about acute food insecurity in the region. Amid a fifth rainy season from October through November currently projected to fail, conditions are deteriorating so fast across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya that human rights experts say it’s the worst hunger crisis in the region’s history — with little relief in sight.

“The situation is extreme,” Margret Mueller, regional coordinator for East and Central Africa of Oxfam International, the global organization that focuses on the alleviation of global poverty and released the report, told Yahoo News. “The next potential improvement of the situation is the next rainy season, which is March to May. So the first time that we can hope to have any harvest is next year [in] June. Until then, the situation is going to deteriorate, and already, 9 million animals have died in the region.”

An estimated that 31 million people across the three countries are facing some level of acute food insecurity, while 11 million are expected to face high levels of insecurity, which means they are in dire need of food assistance, according to the latest data from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a tool for improving food security analysis and decision-making. At least 6 million children face or are already suffering acute malnutrition.

A young girl wearing a purple shawl over her head, seated in front of a metal cup at a trestle table, looks warily at the camera.
A child eats at a school in Dollow, Somalia, on Sept. 19. At midday, dozens of hungry children from the camps try to slip into a local primary school where the World Food Program offers a rare lunch program for students. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Without adequate food and water at their disposal, millions of people in the region are in survival mode. Food costs have sometimes doubled and often tripled in recent months, Mueller said. More than a million people have abandoned their homes in search of nourishment and pasture for animals. In dire circumstances, adults are going days without food in lieu of feeding their children and animals, and education has become an afterthought for many communities, which will have a long-lasting impact.

“It seems, unfortunately, that history is at grave risk of repeating itself,” Kiersten Johnson, team leader for the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) team, told Agrilinks, an online community for food security and agricultural development practitioners. “In Somalia in 2011, alarm bells rang months in advance, but the response from the rest of the world was passive. … What we are saying to the world is that this moment — right now — is our last chance to change the course of events.”

Famine is set to be declared in parts of Somalia this month, which means that at least 20% of households are facing an extreme lack of food, about 30% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition, and 2 of every 10,000 people are dying each day, either from starvation or from the interaction of malnutrition and disease. A 2011 famine in the country claimed the lives of 260,000 people, more than half of them children under the age of 6. Experts fear this drought will result in many more fatalities.

“We cannot wait for famine to be declared,” Rein Paulsen, irector of the U.N.Food and Agriculture Organization's Office of Emergencies and Resilience, said after visiting Somalia in August. “We must act now to safeguard livelihoods and lives.”

A few drops of water fall from a faucet above two dirty yellow plastic containers.
Water dribbles from a faucet at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Dollow on Sept. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Resource scarcity has only been compounded by the economic impact of COVID-19 and the rising costs due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is known as “Europe’s breadbasket.” Making an already fragile situation worse are extreme water and food shortages that prevailed even before the war in Ukraine. Somalia alone imports about 90% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, and the war there has significantly reduced shipments, causing a sharp rise in prices.

Across the sub-Saharan region, most people are fishermen, herders and farmers who depend on agriculture. Without a harvest, neither people nor animals can survive unless outside assistance is provided.

“Right now, it's the livestock, and next, it's going to be our children,” Mueller said, describing those at risk.

Climate change, regional conflict and extreme poverty have exacerbated the issues, and meanwhile, many people are unaware the crisis even exists. A poll from last month of Americans aged 19 to 34 conducted by the IRC and YouGov found that 69% did not know there was a drought in East Africa until they took the survey. Another 57% said politicians are not doing enough to address climate change and related food shortages.

“There is clear bipartisan consensus across the US on the need to do more and do so urgently to avert climate change-induced famine in East Africa,” David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement. “The worst drought in forty years is symptomatic of the growing impact of climate change and the international neglect that allows hunger to run rampant, particularly in countries already reeling from conflict. The U.S. public, especially youth, are in agreement: Global leaders must do more to counter the worst effects of climate change, especially on the world’s most vulnerable.”

Several lines of Somali women in bright-colored shawls wait with their infants in slings on their backs.
Somalis from rural areas hit by drought wait for food at a camp for the internally displaced on the outskirts of Baidoa, in the South West State of Somalia, on Oct. 12. (Geneva Costopulos/WFP via AP)

The U.S. has so far donated over $2 billion in critical humanitarian assistance across the Horn of Africa to affected regions, more than the rest of the world combined, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). But they acknowledge a gap of $1 billion remains, according to the U.N.

“We are very concerned that the amount of funding that is available right now is not going to meet the needs,” Tracy O’Heir, head of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance East Africa Division, told Yahoo News earlier this year.

For others, it’s as if the crisis doesn’t exist.

“This seems to be an invisible famine,” Gayle Smith, CEO of One.org, and a former USAID administrator under President Barack Obama, told Time magazine. “I think there’s some awareness, but it has not triggered the kind of international response that one would expect, and is in fact needed.”

As crops continue to fail year after year, it’s not lost on advocates that the G-20 group, an intergovernmental forum made up of the world’s largest economies, accounts for 80% of the world's emissions, and that the most vulnerable countries experience the harshest effects, which trickle down to food, health and education.

 The bleached remains of dead goats are strewn around a dead donkey on the dusty red earth.
The remains of dead livestock and a donkey are scattered at a camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Dollow on Sept. 21. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

While political leaders have made many promises to help the region, little has changed.

“We have been ringing the alarm, but only see the situation continue to deteriorate,” Abby Maxman, Oxfam America’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “It is not an act of aid, but our collective obligation to act now.”

For Mueller, it comes down to will and compassion.

“This is where we need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we deal with empathy?’ and ‘How are we intentional about it?’” she said. “Hunger is a political choice that we take as a global community to not take action. It's not some event, it's not an earthquake. … If we're not going to accept a death every 36 seconds of hunger — we need to help East Africa.”


Cover thumbnail: AP Photo/Jerome Delay