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Famine returns to the Horn of Africa

Impact on food security in South Sudan in February-April 2017, from minimal (green) to famine (deep red) Impact on food security in South Sudan in February-April 2017, from minimal (green) to famine (deep red) IPC
02 Mar
Drought in the region is turning to full famine – with catastrophic humanitarian consequences

Famine in the Horn of Africa between 2010 and 2012 killed 260,000 people in Somalia, the latest in a series of crises in that part of the world stretching back over two decades.

Last month, however, the UN also declared parts of neighbouring South Sudan to have entered a famine – a status officially defined as requiring ‘critically urgent protection of human lives and vulnerable groups’ – and warned that other countries such as Somalia and Yemen are all desperately in need of $4billion in aid to prevent them entering a similar situation. The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) states that 4.9 million people – about 42 per cent of South Sudan’s population – is believed to be ‘severely food insecure’, a figure which could reach 5.5 million by this summer.

Last year saw successive low rainfall during the Horn of Africa’s rainy seasons, and the annual March to May wet period is forecast to result in below average rainfall as well. Consequently, water stress and drought conditions have increased across the affected countries. As early as January, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) was highlighting that regions of Somalia were experiencing their lowest rainfall since the mid-1980s, and that:

‘urgent action to ramp up assistance provision and ensure adequate humanitarian access is needed to address rising levels of food insecurity and mitigate the potential for large-scale loss of life.’

Much of this low rainfall has been blamed on 2016’s La Niña, as well as ‘exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean,’ according to FEWS NET, reducing rainfall across East Africa as a knock-on effect.

horn of africaMap of evaporative stress across the Horn of Africa and surrounding regions, using data from Christopher Hain/NASA MSFC and the USDA Hydrology and Remote Sensing Lab (Image: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)

The above map displays ‘evaporative stress’ across the region, as measured on the Evaporative Stress Index (ESI). The ESI describes anomalies in evapotranspiration – the rate at which water evaporates from both the land surface and from the leaves of plants – hence the brown patches on the above map show areas where rates of evapotranspiration are sufficiently high create an area of extreme water stress. It’s an index which can indicate impending famine before it actually happens, predicting that crops are soon to fail before they actually do so, and enabling pre-famine alerts to be issued.

Nevertheless, despite the early warnings, funding has failed to reach the levels deemed necessary; only $90million has been received, well short of the levels necessary to prevent a humanitarian crisis hitting, for example, the estimated 3.3 million people in Yemen who are vulnerable to this latest wave of famine.

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