Ukraine war accelerates climate emergencies in Horn of Africa

In some parts of the region, famine is now not just a threat, it is waiting.

9-year-old Noradin, four of his siblings and his mother Owliyo, outside their make-shift tent near Dollow town, Somalia
Photo by Sebastian Rich of nine-year-old Noradin, four of his siblings and his mother Owliyo, outside their makeshift tent near Dollow town, Somalia in February 2022. The family is holding up their sole possessions after fleeing their home due to drought [Sebastian Rich/UNICEF]

Nine-year-old Noradin finds it difficult to make eye contact. He hides behind his older brother and runs his finger around one of the only possessions his family now has: a basic metal cup. He endured a terrifying 250km (155-mile) journey to safety that took his family more than 15 days, fearing attacks en route. He and his mother and six siblings are exhausted, hungry and thirsty.

Noradin fled his village about two months ago. He is one of more than one million people driven from their homes across the Horn of Africa by one of the worst climate-induced emergencies the world has seen: a crisis frequently compounded by conflict. He and his family have arrived in the Somali border town of Dollow at a desperate point. But, unimaginably, life is about to become much worse.

More than 5,000km (3,107 miles) away, in the east of Europe, children are being forced to make their own perilous journeys to safety. And the ripples caused by the war in Ukraine are now hitting the Horn of Africa’s shores and accelerating an already critical emergency.

Drought has plagued the Horn of Africa for more than four decades, but the past three years have seen some of the harshest conditions yet. Insecurity, a lack of water, and a lack of means to survive, made it impossible for Noradin and his family to stay in their home village. One hundred thirty of the 150 goats and cows they depended on died of thirst and hunger. Twenty were sold. They fled as a last resort.

Throughout the region, livestock is dying in droves and crops are failing. More than 1.7 million children across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia require urgent treatment for severe acute malnutrition. If rains do not arrive in the next three months, these numbers will increase to more than two million. Weather forecasts already suggest temperatures will climb higher than usual in the coming weeks. In some parts of the region, famine is not just a threat, it is waiting.

The war in Ukraine is set to tip more families in the Horn of Africa over the edge. The region has become increasingly dependent on imported grains from Russia and Ukraine. Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia import 67 percent, 89 percent and 92 percent of their wheat respectively from the two countries. Russia and Ukraine also account for 53 percent of the global trade of sunflower oil and seed. However, supply lines are blocked and, in areas of Ukraine, agricultural production is in danger. The prices of cooking oil, bread and wheat flour are already reaching new records in local markets in the Horn of Africa. A dire nutrition crisis is expected to escalate.

Beyond food, the cost of daily living is also rising. The prices of fertiliser are going up, due to global shortages in key ingredients sourced from Russia, alongside a host of other factors. Fuel, too, is increasing in price. Some countries in the Horn of Africa also rely on exports to Russia. Kenya, for example, sends cut flowers, tea and fruit. As prices for daily essentials increase, so too does the possibility of local tensions and violence.

Children across the Horn of Africa need urgent support. Funding for the humanitarian crisis is dismal. UNICEF currently has only approximately 20 percent of the money it needs for 2022 to provide vital aid, like nutrition supplies and access to clean water. With a worsening climate forecast, and the prospect of a fourth failed rainy season looming, funding requirements are likely to increase.

However, while short-term humanitarian support is critical, it is not the full answer. Beyond food aid, we need long-term solutions for a long-term climate-induced emergency that is wearing down children and their families year after year, giving them no time for recovery. Drilling for reliable sources of water could transform the lives of at least 70 million children in the Horn of Africa who live in areas where access to water is extremely precarious. Safe and reliable sources will prevent illness and stop families from abandoning their homes – along with access to schools and healthcare – in search of water. Beyond this, social protection programmes like cash transfers can help families survive in the short term, making them more resilient to face the next challenge, and even allowing them to send their children to school. Until now, UNICEF has received no funding at all for its social protection work across the region for the rest of the year.

Back in Dollow, Noradin and his family have only a tiny homemade shelter to help stave off the relentless sun. They sleep on the bare earth and can eat only if their mother, Owliyo, earns a little money washing clothes. The risk of diseases like cholera, measles and diarrhoea, common partners of malnutrition in the drought season, creeps closer. Owliyo is drained. She explains she has never experienced anything this bad. The world has a chance to step in now to provide urgent assistance, before their plight, and that of millions of others, rapidly deteriorates.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.