Why 10 million people are starving in the Horn of Africa (cheat sheet)

Refugees at Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp on the Somalian/Kenya border.

Ladhan Waraq lost her eight-year-old daughter to a crippling food shortage that is sweeping the Horn of Africa, a collection of countries in Africa’s northeast. It’s a devastating wave of starvation that is so far affecting 10 million people. Ladhan trekked from Somalia to Kenya in order to seek the help of desperately stretched humanitarian organisations but lost her daughter on the way. The heat, the malnutrition, the exhausting walk across desolate landscape was too much. On the morning journalist Matt Wade found Ladhan, her baby Sahlan was at death’s door. The baby was saved just in time.

Their story is not an anomaly. It is one of hundreds of thousands as yet untold because the suffering in the Horn of Africa has largely gone unnoticed. Here is what is happening:

What is happening in the Horn of Africa?

The Horn of Africa, which is a region comprising the countries in Africa’s northeast, is experiencing the most severe drought in 60 years. 10 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Uganda and South Sudan (which has only recently became an independent nation) are now in desperate need of food, water and emergency healthcare. Many people are on the move, especially from war-ravaged Somalia, and the largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab, in Kenya, is receiving approximately 1300 refugees a day – 800 of which are children.

Is this a famine?

[Since this was posted, a famine has been declared in the Horn of Africa. “Phase 5, ‘Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe’, means more than two people per 10,000 die each day, acute malnutrition rates are above 30 per cent, all livestock is dead, and there is less than 2,100 kcal of food and 4 litres of water available per person per day.”]


No. The last official famine was in 1983-4 when approximately one million people In Sudan and Ethiopia died. A famine is where, in a given area, there is absolute inaccessibility to food, which leads to death, and the term is not used as often as you think. The World Food Programme (WFP) has a scale to define the phases of food security/insecurity, ranging from a scale of (1) “Generally food secure” to (5) “Catastrophe/famine.” In the current crisis in East Africa, some areas have been declared to be in phase (4), which is “emergency.”



















Is famine inevitable or can it be avoided?

The Horn of Africa is in a state of severe food insecurity that demands immediate and constant attention. However, the global financial crisis and the humanitarian disasters in places like Pakistan and Japan have diverted the world’s attention from East Africa, despite pleas for funds late last year. The World Food Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organisation issued a statement last week saying the world was already “behind the curve,” and it remains to be seen if the world can avoid another famine.


[As noted, a famine has now been declared].

What is the situation like for individual countries?

It is vital to remember that Africa is not one country, it is a continent of many countries, and the diversity between the stages of development for each is wide-ranging. Images on our televisions should not perpetuate the myth that Africa is a hopeless case. Rather, it is important to consider the situation from country to country.

SOMALIA: Somalia is regarded as the most unstable country in the world. There is ongoing armed conflict, rising food prices and drought which has caused one of the largest refugee flows to Kenya and Ethiopia. According to UNICEF, over 2.8 million Somalis are malnourished – a large percentage of which are children.

KENYA: Conflict across the border in Somalia has put extra pressure on Kenya, most notably the Dadaab camp in the country’s north-east. Dadaab holds more than 380,000 refugees and is receiving approximately 10,000 new arrivals every week. The camp was originally designed to hold 90,000. According to UNICEF, more than 385,000 children and 90,000 pregnant and lactating women in Kenya are suffering from malnutrition.

ETHIOPIA: The number of people in need of emergency food assistance increased from 2.8 million people at the beginning of 2011, to 3.2 million people in April. Rising food costs and drought has resulted in an increase in malnutrition especially in children. According to UNICEF, over 300,000 severely malnourished children will require life-saving treatment this year.











The camp.









What is the Australian Government doing?

It was announced last week that Australia will contribute $11.2 million through partners such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to help meet urgent food needs.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said: “These are dark days for the Horn of Africa. The world cannot stand by and witness a repeat of the mistakes of the 1984 famine, where delays in an international response saw a catastrophic loss of life.”

What is the rest of the world doing?

Many joint funds have been established to get funding to the area as quickly as possible. For example, in the UK, the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) has commenced a campaign for the East Africa crisis, which has so far raised £15 million. The DEC is an umbrella organization for fourteen humanitarian aid agencies, and unites their efforts to maximize funds raised and ensure they are spent effectively.


As funds and food start to flow, the World Food Programme’s logistics team work to ‘bridge the gap between the donors and the hungry.’ They use ships, planes, trucks, helicopters – even animals – to transport food to the crisis zones. When the food reaches the distribution sites the WFP partners with governments and NGOs to deliver food. Local community leaders work with the WFP to ensure the rations reaches those who need it most (children, mothers, pregnant women and the elderly).

What are aid and development agencies doing?

Since the 1983-4 famine, many international aid and development agencies have set up projects and programs in the Horn of Africa that focus on education for food production, climate change adaptation, preparedness and disaster risk reduction. Activities like planting drought resistance potatoes mean that in some areas, the situation could have been much worse.

While long-term programs are important, the immediate need is getting food into bellies. Most aid agencies are focusing their efforts on giving milk-rich products, high-calorie oil and flour to women and children. These types of food are designed to help fight malnutrition, particularly in nursing mothers and children under five.

What can I do?

Give to any of the following organisations: Plan International Australia, ActionAid Australia, MSF, Oxfam, Caritas, UNICEF UNHCR. Save the Children , Care Australia

With thanks to Julie C.

Here is a video from the refugee camp, just a tiny insight into what is going on: