Foreign Policy Blogs

The Horn of Africa Drought: The Endless Plight

For over a week, the international news media has zoomed in to the Horn of Africa for two reasons; to celebrate the birth of South Sudan as a new nation and to report the resurfacing of drought in the sub region. Aid agencies have come out in force in recent days, launching appeals for funds to help them deal with the impact of a severe drought in the region. The United Nations says the region is experiencing the worst food crisis in the world today, with over 10 million people severely affected in drought-stricken areas of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda. The question for many is what went wrong with the region? Why is the region now and then hit so severely by drought? What seems to be wrong when even when there is sufficient rain to support the agrarian livelihood, drought is still persistent? Here is some perspective on defining the problem and suggested policy options to address these issues.

The Horn of Africa has a long history of recurring and devastating famine and drought problems. On the surface it appears that erratic weather conditions have repeatedly triggered large-scale cattle and crop failures for the predominate subsistence farmers. Agricultural production is highly variable and vulnerable to climatic variations. Reports of poor rains, presumed to lead to drought, are followed by graphic pictures of famine. However, to portray ecological factors as the sole cause of the region’s recurring predicament is to vastly oversimplify the situation. Long and recurrent conflicts, poor infrastructure, misguided policy options, weak market systems and seasonal migration patterns contribute to the ever-increasing drought problems in the region.

Between 1900 and now, more than 18 famine periods were registered in the region’s history. The current drought is severe, and its impacts have been exacerbated by extremely high food prices, reduced coping capacity, and a limited humanitarian response. Over the years, fighting in the region compounded drought problems throughout the countries in the region. For instance, the 2000 boarder dispute between Ethiopia with Eritrea, ethnic clashes and the ongoing instabilities in Somalia had impacted the availability and use of all resources. During the border conflict an estimated 10 million people in Ethiopia and 1 million people in Eritrea were affected- displaced, subjected to drought, and provided food aid.

Ethnic based conflict has also exacerbated the drought faced by thousands of people in the region. Fighting between rival ethnic groups in Afar and Somali regions in Ethiopia and Somalia has forced nomadic pastoralists away from their traditional water supplies in the two countries. To make matters worse, Somalia has been ravaged by conflict for years, causing death and displacement, and limiting humanitarian access especially in the south, which is controlled by hard-line Al Shabab Islamist rebels. The seasonal movement of the Borena communities in Ethiopia and Kenya has led them in to conflict with the communities and the lose of many lives. These conflicts forced pastoralists to change their usual migration patterns, and most importantly, denied them access to either traditional water points and wells or grazing areas, or both .

In the vast desert areas of Afar, Somalia, and Borena, the predicament of pastoralists and traders has been aggravated by the poor functioning infrastructure system. The evidence here reinforces the hypothesis that drought is more a question of accessibility than availability. Inadequate roads and transport structures to the sparsely populated desert area, lack of access to credit facility due to seasonal mobility, and lack of market information make the marketing and the export of cattle and cattle products and food distribution in times of crisis both time consuming and expensive. Thus, pastoralists are still caught in a poverty trap and forced to highly vulnerable famine and food security problems.

Weak government structure and limited capacity has further complicated the gravity of the problem. Although the governments in Ethiopia and Kenya are able to design early warning systems, as well as extensive distribution of modern farm inputs through extension to the sedentary farmers, no specific attention was drawn targeting the predominantly pastoral communities in remote areas. Providing basic institutional support and food aid to the nomadic pastoralists is highly problematic as they wander long distances in search of water and pasture. That means any intervention must keep track of where the nomads are so that they can be reached. To make things worse, accessing the vast majority of these pastoralists in time of crisis take months due to coordination and structural problems within the government bureaucracy.

Currently, in Kenya and Somalia, food shortages have already reached the emergency stage, although the prognosis for each differs, according to news sources. With the Kenyan government having declared a national emergency and promising to increase cereal imports, there is an opportunity to stop things getting much worse. But in Somalia, the ongoing conflict raises a question mark about the ability of aid agencies to respond. Last week, Al-Shabaab lifted a ban on humanitarian agencies supplying aid in the large patches of the country the rebel group controls, because of the drought. The international aid community welcomed the move, but remains concerned about security.

Addressing drought in the region requires a multifaceted multicultural long term approach. Food security problems have been present since the 1970s. Unless the root causes are adequately addressed now, the amount of food shortages will continue. For the agrarian, life with their cattle is a continuous struggle, but is the only sources of income. Without any peace and sustainable government support or insurance against cattle and crop failure, agrarian way of life remains precarious and undependable.

There are many factors believed to hinder sustainable peace and cooperation between the different ethnic groups in the region: access to decision making, culturally and environmentally appropriate forms of local administration, social service provisions, administrative practice and policies, and participatory resource sharing structures, to name a few. Understanding the dynamics of competing and disputed claims over access to the main trade routes, which often includes security alerts, will reduce conflicts.

Past interventions also incurred calls to revisit short and long-term development policies, and strategies of the government and partners operating in the region towards the agricultural sector. The complexity of agricultural development policies in Kenya and Ethiopia, as well as ignorance of the nomadic sector, has led to persistent food security problems. Significant structural reforms both at national and regional levels are required. The region must speed up voluntary settlement and urbanization, adopt culturally sensitive conflict prevention mechanisms, and involve the private sector in development activities like irrigation based commercial crop production and investment in salt extraction.

Concerted efforts must be made in the following areas to timely identify, coordinate, and react to famine and food security problems among the pastoral communities. Culturally acceptable mechanisms for peaceful settlement of disputes over resource and decision making must be incorporated in local administration systems. Respective governments and partners in the region need to improve inadequate transport and communication network systems- this will aid access to markets and responsible transportation of goods (such that food finds its way from areas of surplus to those with deficits). Alternative sources of income in non pastoral sectors must be supported on the side of economic policy and strategy. Also, special attention is needed and concerted effort must be made for environmental rehabilitation and protection, both for ecological and tourism purposes.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]



Abeje T. Chumo

Abeje T. Chumo is an expert on International Law and Use of Military Force in International Relations. He has special interest and skills linking human security with freedom, peace and social justice issues in East Africa. He continuously promotes alternative dispute resolution forums as a way forward to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.