Breaking the Cycle of Despair in the Horn of Africa

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah speaks with recently arrived women and children at Dadaab camp in Kenya.
USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah speaks with recently arrived women and children at Dadaab camp in Kenya.
L. Meserve, USAID

At this time last year, residents in southern Somalia were starting to worry. The annual Deyr rains were late, water supplies were drying up, and pastoralists were being forced to venture increasingly long distances to feed their livestock.

Over the next eight months, the situation continued to worsen. Not only did the Deyr rains fail completely, but the 2011 Gu rains from April to June were also far below expectations – leading to what has become Somalia’s worst drought in decades.

A similar story has played out across much of the Horn of Africa. The lack of rainfall and subsequent water shortages lie at the heart of the ongoing catastrophic drought and famine gripping much of the region, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including 29,000 children in the past three months alone. Today, there are more than 13 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti in need of humanitarian assistance, and in Somalia, a child dies every six minutes.

Though the situation is bleak across much of the Horn, it is perhaps most acute in southern Somalia. A complex web of factors fuels the ongoing famine there including degradation of the natural environment, and now, severe water shortage, which are sharply exacerbated by the effect of the two decades of conflict and the lack of a functioning central government following the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. Today, the country is experiencing its worst annual crop production in 17 years, and prices for staple crops like sorghum and maize are at record highs. In some parts of the country, grains are 350% more expensive than last year. When combined with high livestock mortality and curtailed labor demand, the situation is dire.

Driven by these trying circumstances, over 680,000 Somalis have fled for refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. In July, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah visited one such camp in northeastern Kenya: “I met one Somali woman who traveled by donkey cart with her two children for 12 days looking for food. It is hard to believe that she was counted among the lucky, as many families have lost children along the way.”

In terms of emergency assistance, the US is currently the world’s leading donor to the Horn. In fiscal year 2011, USAID provided approximately $650 million in humanitarian and food aid, bringing relief to more than 4.6 million people across the region. USAID works closely with its partners to provide emergency water, sanitation and hygiene interventions. This includes trucking water to drought-affected communities and rehabilitating water supply infrastructure. With recent outbreaks of cholera, USAID is especially focused on ensuring that communities have access to clean water, as well as education on how to minimize their risk of exposure to disease.

USAID also funds the famine Early Warning System Network (fEWS NET), which for over 25 years has monitored weather changes in food-insecure regions worldwide and acted as a harbinger of impending climactic events. The information allows humanitarian organizations, national governments, and regional institutions to prepare for crises—for example, by pre-positioning food supplies, vaccinating livestock, and strengthening safety net programs.

According to Gary Eilerts, USAID’s program manager for fEWS NET, the team detected early signs of the current Horn crisis in August 2010 – many months prior to the first official drought declarations. This early alarm allowed USAID to position food reserves and initiate emergency programs in January 2011.

The program uses remote sensing imagery to examine rainfall and agricultural conditions, and can even monitor surface-water variability over time and space. “We use this type of remote analysis really heavily in a place like Somalia, where physical access is fairly difficult,” Eilerts adds. With such information, the group can detect (and predict) changes in food security, and levels of socio-economic stress that could lead to the disappearance of livelihoods.

One product that helped crystallize international action is the Integrated food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Tool, a classification system and map that depicts levels of food insecurity on the ground. In the Horn, the map played a valuable role in generating consensus and allocating relief supplies, a process FEWS NET plans to replicate elsewhere in the world: “People have seen the [IPC tool] and understand how it helped concretize and define the nature of the problem. I am absolutely positive it is going to be much easier to [generate consensus] going forward in other food crises, at least in Africa.”

While early warning signals help relief agencies prepare emergency responses, there is also a need to focus on interventions that improve long-term water availability.

Dr. Gabriel Senay, an Ethiopian-born researcher with USGS believes that one solution is creating more water storage facilities: “Many people think of East Africa as a very dry region, but it is not – especially the mountainous parts of the region. There is a lot of rain, but it falls over three months essentially. Then when the dry period comes, there is not a drop of rain for several months. So you need reservoirs of different sizes – from farm ponds to lakes – to meet human, livestock and agricultural needs.”

In areas that receive low rainfall, untapped groundwater supplies might be a possible solution. According to Senay, groundwater in southern Somalia is “absolutely being underutilized. And do you know where the water that seeps into the groundwater system ends up? The Indian Ocean!”

Though relatively little is known about the status of southern Somalia’s groundwater supplies, this is starting to change with projects like the UN food and Agriculture Organization’s Somalia Water and Land Information Management Program (SWALIM). As explained by SWALIM’s Water Coordinator, Dr. Hussein Gadain, “One and a half decades of civil strife in Somalia have resulted in the loss or damage of most of the water and land-related information collected in the previous half century.” In response, SWALIM is conducting extensive hydrogeological surveys, which will hopefully help increase the success rates of future drilling efforts.

Senay and Gadain also stress the need to understand how people utilize water, especially in arid areas like the Horn. According to Gadain, “Keep in mind that for a pastoral community in Somalia, water supplies are used more for livestock than for human beings.”

Understanding water use patterns will also help identify stakeholders to include in decision-making processes. “Water collection is very much in the women’s domain within the region. So when we think about how to improve water availability, we need to remember that women need to be part of that conversation from the very beginning,” says Carla Koppell, USAID’s

Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, who is just back from the region.

Tragically, the water situation on the ground is expected to worsen before it gets any better. “We’re fearing a double-dip drought,” explains Gary Eilerts, and in some of the hardest hit pastoral areas, “we know that nothing will get better at least until the next rainy season– roughly April 2012…”

Though USAID continues to play a major role in emergency relief, according to Rajiv Shah: “…that is no comfort today to those who have no food or water for their children, or for themselves. We must implement long-term strategies that can help prevent this kind of suffering once and for all.” Clearly that goal and the concerted effort it demands are top priorities for USAID and its development partners in all corners of the globe.

L.K. ole-Moiyoi

More Information:

FWD Campaign

FAO Swalim


Last updated: September 25, 2013

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