Water Problems in Africa

Amid Record Drought and Food Insecurity, East Africa’s Protracted Humanitarian Crisis Worsens


JANUARY 18, 2023

By Kyilah Terry and Aishwarya Rai

A displaced woman walks with a jerrycan of water in Somalia.

A displaced woman walks with a jerrycan of water in Somalia. (Photo: IOM/Claudia Rosel)

Catastrophic drought in East Africa is the region’s worst disaster of its kind in four decades and is primed to bring an unprecedented sixth consecutive failed rainy season in 2023. Record-low agricultural yields coupled with months of obstructed grain imports created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have exacerbated food insecurity across the region, raising fears that East African countries are facing a repeat of the 2010-12 famine in Somalia, during which 260,000 people died, half of them children. More than 37 million people around the region faced acute food insecurity as of August 2022, and analysts predict that a famine will be declared in Somalia this year.

This food insecurity comes on top of years-long violent conflict and economic crises in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and elsewhere. While the main drivers of African displacement are typically considered to be conflict and repressive regimes, as evidenced by the disproportionate focus on civil wars in Ethiopia and Somalia, this deprioritizes the existence and compounding nature of climate change and extreme weather. Environmental change acts as a threat multiplier, aggravating underlying tensions while increasing political, social, and economic insecurity.

In response, many residents of the region have fled. Nearly 83,000 refugees and asylum seekers took refuge in similarly drought-affected areas of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia during the first 11 months of 2022, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Another 1.1 million Somalis and 590,000 Ethiopians were displaced internally due to drought.

About 83 percent of those displaced across international boundaries have gone to Kenya, East Africa’s economic and political hub, which for decades has hosted the displaced from around the region. Yet Kenya is not insulated from drought; malnutrition, water shortages, disease, and displacement have been commonplace within its borders. These ailments are especially pronounced in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees as well as in the surrounding host communities, all of which are vulnerable to food insecurity.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), donor countries, and the Kenyan government have a long history of collaborating to provide humanitarian assistance to forcibly displaced people. But traditional aid is not designed to address the spiraling interconnections between drought, extreme hunger, and displacement, nor political, economic, and other insecurity further destabilized by a changing climate. The protracted nature of East Africa’s crisis, donor fatigue, and the Kenyan government’s ambivalent stance towards refugee hosting and integration have been obstacles in providing relief to people recently displaced by drought-related causes as well as the many refugees who have lived in Kenya for years.

This article explores how climate and environmental stress have exacerbated challenges for refugee settlements and other humanitarian relief efforts in East Africa, focusing on Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda.

How Drought Contributes to Displacement

Climate change accelerates the frequency and intensity of slow- and sudden-onset natural disasters. When drought becomes severe in agriculture-reliant countries with underdeveloped infrastructure, it can lead to economic crisis and food insecurity by killing off livestock, destroying crops, and causing water shortages. Lack of consistent access to nutritious food can lead to malnutrition and, in dire cases, famine.

About 6.3 million people in South Sudan—slightly more than half the country’s population—were experiencing acute food insecurity as of late 2022, according to the multi-partner Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), as were 5.6 million in Somalia, 4.4 million in Kenya, 1.1 million in Uganda, and based on 2021 numbers, 4.4 million residents of Ethiopia. Somalia may be the epicenter of the current drought, but the situation in South Sudan underscores the sweeping nature of climate-related threats; while some areas suffer from lack of water, elsewhere torrential rains have caused immense flooding. Flooding, like drought, can precipitate communicable disease, low agriculture yields, and loss of livelihood; it also can worsen humanitarian crises.

Neither food insecurity nor drought necessarily leads to mass displacement, in part because famines are caused by a varying set of economic, political, and environmental factors. But recent evidence suggests that migration is more common when people are less able to adapt in place to changing environmental conditions, as is the case for many in agriculture-dependent, low-income, and politically unstable countries. Indeed, some areas of the United States have been affected by persistent drought, but the country’s advanced infrastructure is part of the reason that there was no mass migration.

Many people in East Africa, meanwhile, are particularly ill-suited to withstand these pressures by remaining in place. Large portions of the population depend on agriculture and conflict between governments and rebel groups has been recurrent across the region. The region’s reliance on grains from Russia and Ukraine—shipments of which have been unreliable since the outbreak of war in February 2022—is also a major factor; Somalia, for instance, typically imports 90 percent of its wheat from these countries.

Figure 1. Refugees and Asylum Seekers in East African Countries Most Affected by Drought, November 2022

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR's Drought Response in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia as of 30 November 2022,” (UNHCR fact sheet, Nairobi, Kenya, December 2022), available online.

For many herders and small-scale farmers,  migration has traditionally been a way to adapt to adverse situations, but recent events have pushed them into unfamiliar areas and forced them to find new lines of work. Typically, displaced people first move nearby, to destinations that tend to be cheaper and safer to access, before going to neighboring countries.

In addition to exacerbating first-time displacement, the combination of drought and food insecurity can aggravate pre-existing flows, causing secondary movements from countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan, where half of total displacement on the continent occurs. Kenya tends to be the preferred destination for this incremental and often circular movement.

Complicating Long-Running Relief Efforts

People who flee into Kenya are likely to end up in one of two places with large, longstanding refugee populations: northwestern Turkana County, where the Kakuma refugee camp and Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement hosted more than 244,000 refugees and asylum seekers (58 percent of whom were from South Sudan and 16 percent from Somalia) as of the end of October; or northeastern Garissa County, where nearly 234,000 refugees and asylum seekers (mostly from Somalia) lived in the Dadaab refugee complex. Many have been in the camps for several years; thousands have been there for decades.

In the past, the Kenyan government has sought to close these settlements, particularly after the 2013 Al-Shabaab terrorist attack at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, which officials have claimed with little evidence was planned in refugee camps. The population of the Dadaab complex has shrunk from nearly 500,000 a decade ago, yet it has faced an emergency influx in recent months, stretching available services. Since 2016, many displaced people from Somalia have been unable to formally register as refugees in Kenya, especially in Dadaab, preventing them from obtaining identity documents and locking them out of many relief services. However, the new government of President William Ruto has been less insistent on closing camps and more focused on integrating migrants with host communities.    

Despite aid organizations’ efforts, inadequate rainfall, difficulty containing COVID-19 (including medication shortages, misinformation, and vaccine hesitancy), and outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and dysentery have contributed to the deteriorating health of many displaced people in recent months. The fact that many refugees come from places with poor health systems and have not received routine vaccinations further complicates the situation. Measles outbreaks and medical supply disruptions have been recorded in parts of Dadaab.

Challenges for Children and Women

In these settings, children are most at risk from malnutrition and starvation. Children in hunger crises experience "wasting," with their weight and muscle mass disproportionately low compared to their height; those with severe wasting are 11 times more likely to die than well-nourished children. Humanitarians work to reduce child hunger by providing nutritional and cash assistance as well as clean water to vulnerable families, training communities on malnutrition prevention, hosting programs for mothers on breastfeeding practices, and operating mobile health teams that treat malnutrition in remote areas. Although these activities have been implemented for decades and are often successful, malnutrition rates have increased during the drought; about 7 million children in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia were on the verge of starvation as of June 2022. With the increase in refugee arrivals, the children’s malnutrition ward in Kakuma and Dadaab has expanded, leading to shortages of lifesaving food supplements for children under 5.

Meanwhile, 15 million children were out of school across the Horn of Africa as of April 2022. Those in refugee camps are more likely to miss school amid the drought, since they are often pulled into finding work or looking for food to support their families. Additionally, the combination of drought and budget cuts has forced humanitarian organizations to decrease rations, affecting the availability of school lunches and      disincentivizing parents from sending children to school.

These challenges can be particularly acute for girls. Generally speaking, women and girls comprise four-fifths of those forced to leave home amid climate disasters. Because drought reduces incomes for Horn of Africa households reliant on agriculture and livestock, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports “alarming rates” of girls as young as 12 being forced to undergo female genital mutilation in preparation for marriage, which often leads to a dowry for the bride’s family. In parts of Ethiopia most affected by the drought, child marriage more than doubled from June 2021 to June 2022.

Women and girls have also experienced increased sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps. Reports of this type of violence nearly doubled in one Dadaab complex camp between 2019 and 2021, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), while sites in parts of Somalia have reported girls victimized at younger ages than in the past. Often, attacks occur when women and girls travel farther away from their settlement to seek out food and water. At times, this violence has been committed by aid workers. Almost surely, true rates of violence are much higher; women often fear reporting assaults because they might be pressured to marry their perpetrator or are concerned they might lose access to services. Furthermore, there have been reports of trafficking along migration routes towards the Kenyan refugee camps, typically targeting women and girls.

The Threat Multiplier

Environmental change exacerbates pre-existing vulnerabilities, and so will not affect all refugees or sectors equally. For example, drought zones often overlap with areas of high poverty and limited access to essential services such as clean water and sanitation, meaning children and families already disadvantaged by poverty face some of the most immediate dangers. In fragile settings such as refugee camps and surrounding communities, climate shocks can exacerbate conflict, as people travel farther from their settlement in search of food, water, and work. Elsewhere, extreme weather can force pastoralists to compete for access to grasslands and water, often displacing farmers already using the land.

As a result, a stable, safe situation inside refugee camps is far from assured. Tribal discrimination has also created various socioeconomic barriers in camps, especially for Somali Bantus. The drought has exacerbated tensions between residents by increasing competition for resources such as water, food, and clothing. In the Dadaab complex in November, a local man was killed and several people were injured amid a dispute with a migrant over the price of a knife.

When camps become full, many people without strong family connections are forced to build makeshift shelters outside camps and are ineligible for many services. New arrivals on the fringes of camps—including those fleeing drought—often rely on hospitality from registered refugees and host communities, but are also vulnerable to harassment and assault by people who sometimes extract fees and bribes. Furthermore, scarce resources make recruitment into extremist groups easier.

Lack of Funding and Focus

In East Africa, few people are displaced solely by drought or other environmental changes. Because these impacts exacerbate other issues, such as food insecurity and violent conflict, the factors driving migration are multifold.

While humanitarian organizations may seek to respond to these vulnerabilities, they face shortfalls in international aid, in part due to donor fatigue over the region’s decades-long humanitarian challenges as well as greater donor focus on more recent crises, including vast displacement from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Venezuela. In October, UNHCR reported that it had received just 45 percent of the funds necessary to implement its drought response in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. The United States, the world’s largest foreign aid donor, provided an estimated U.S. $751 million for the humanitarian response in those three countries in 2022, but funding remains short. This year, Somalia and Ethiopia are the world’s two most urgent humanitarian crises, according to the IRC, due in part to underfunding.

This situation stands in stark relief to the global response to the war in Ukraine, for which countries had pledged $1.5 billion within days of Russia’s invasion. A UN spokesperson described that show of support as “among the fastest and most generous responses a humanitarian flash appeal has ever received.”

Lack of funding for East Africa and other protracted humanitarian crises that have faded from the headlines has raised alarms throughout the international system. “For the first time during my tenure, I am worried about UNHCR’s financial situation,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi warned in October. As malnutrition skyrocketed across East Africa, the World Food Program (WFP) by June 2022 had cut food rations by up to 50 percent for three-quarters of refugees there, most affecting those in Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda. The WFP cited funding constraints.

Where Does Kenya Stand?

In Kenya, the host of most drought-affected refugees and asylum seekers in East Africa, domestic politics plays a large role in policies towards the displaced. The government’s past threats to close refugee camps, often amid negotiations over international aid and other support, has underscored refugees’ liminal status. The government most recently set a June 2022 deadline to close the country’s refugee facilities but once again backed away from the threat. Key initiatives to promote refugee self-reliance and integration¬¬—such as elements of the 2021 Refugee Act, a regional Marshall Plan, and Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan in Turkana West (KISEDP)— have yet to be fully implemented. Without full enactment of these measures, refugees cannot access secondary education or formal employment outside of camps.

The August 2022 election of Ruto, whose position on refugee camps is unclear, has also added to the uncertainty. While Ruto had previously defended efforts to close the Dadaab complex, his government has been quieter on the issue since he took charge.

Hope for a Proactive Future

After five consecutive failed rainy seasons and with a sixth projected this year, drought has become a mainstay in East Africa. With the environmental disaster compounded by long-term conflict, poverty, reliance on agriculture, insufficient international aid, and other challenges, migration may seem inevitable. Up to 86 million people in sub-Saharan Africa will migrate within their own countries due to climate change by 2050, according to the World Bank, with sizable numbers in East Africa. Yet amid uncertainty around the world’s ability to meet targets to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, population trends, and national migration policies, the numbers could end up being larger. In reality, many can be expected to move internationally, as Kenya’s experience shows.

There are signs, however, of emerging plans to address future displacement, including by matching humanitarian efforts with Kenya’s Refugee Act to make it easier for displaced people to find work and move freely. Humanitarian groups have lobbied for the act to be implemented uniformly across the country and not just in individual counties, in part to support groups working in hard-to-reach areas.

International funding to address East Africa’s displacement and humanitarian crisis has been insufficient, yet there is some hope for future efforts. On the climate front, world leaders agreed at the UN COP27 summit in November 2022 to establish a “loss and damage” fund to address the consequences of climate change for developing countries. This may include resources for migrants and victims of slow-onset climate crises, including for resettlement and adaptation. However, basic details over the loss and damage fund have yet to be resolved and are sure to be the subject of bitter negotiations.

It will be difficult to address food insecurity and other drivers of forced migration in East Africa without adequate humanitarian funding. The present drought starkly illustrates the need for humanitarian relief and development assistance. These types of extreme weather events will become increasingly commonplace due to climate change, yet humanitarian aid has failed to keep pace even as the region faces the direst crisis in years. While some of East Africa’s refugee and IDP settlements are decades-old, the current situation is proving to be a test unlike ever before.


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