Eight-month-old Ibrahim is silent and motionless in his grandmother’s arms, as babies wail around him in the hospital ward in Mogadishu, Somalia. He is weak and emaciated from the effects of severe acute malnutrition and diarrhoea. As the worst drought the region has seen for forty years ravages the country, his mother’s breastmilk has dried up from lack of food and water, and his family simply has nothing left to sustain him. His grandmother’s voice cracks as she begs for treatment.
But, sadly, too many across the world appear unmoved. It won’t be until thousands of children like Ibrahim are buried across the Horn of Africa, that the international community might look up.
Unfortunately, we know this from experience. Just over a decade ago, the world was repeatedly warned of a devastating drought in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. Nonetheless, famine was allowed to take hold in Somalia in 2011. Over a quarter of a million people, many of them children, died. Only when their bodies filled TV screens, did the world leap to its feet.
We said, ‘never again’. But now, again, the lives of more than 1.8 million children in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in danger. They need urgent treatment for the deadliest form of hunger: severe acute malnutrition.
Alarm bells ignored over need to act early
An unprecedented four rainy seasons have failed in the space of two years, with forecasts suggesting the October to December rains are likely to fail too. Climate change has pushed more than ten million children across the region into brutal drought conditions that are killing the livestock and crops they depend on, forcing them to flee their homes, severing their access to education and healthcare, and putting their safety at risk.
UNICEF has been repeatedly ringing the alarm bell. We are extremely grateful for donors who have come forward, but our emergency appeal remains desperately underfunded.
The evidence in support of acting early in the face of drought — as happened in 2016 and 2017 when the world averted famine in the Horn of Africa — is overwhelming. We not only save lives and prevent the devastating, and permanent, damage of malnutrition to children’s brains and bodies, and thus longer-term to countries’ economies, but donors also spend less in the long run. The World Bank found that an emergency response to a drought that is even just one month quicker, ultimately gives a 0.8% boost in income per capita.
Armed with this wealth of knowledge, why have lessons learned been short lived? Psychology certainly plays a role. It can be difficult for donors to stick out their necks, risk committing funds before a disaster is visible, and build an ark on dry land on a sunny day. The incentive to act is also missing as overwhelming public approval tends to come with huge displays of support during a humanitarian emergency. Whereas rapid onset disasters like earthquakes or typhoons usually spur an instant reaction, creeping droughts remain some of the worst funded of all crises.
And let’s be frank: African children’s lives seem to matter less on the world stage. Too many emergencies on the African continent are forgotten, with children’s deaths accepted as somehow inevitable. While donors and the media rightfully focus on the war and human suffering in Ukraine, it must not be at the expense of children and human suffering in Africa.
Across Eastern and Southern African countries emergency appeals are on average only 20% funded. The countries least responsible for creating climate change are abandoned to its effects. Somalia, for instance, produces 0.01% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions but is ranked in the top ten of worst-affected countries in the world in UNICEF’s children’s climate risk index.
Back in Mogadishu, Ibrahim is very gradually improving after an urgent blood transfusion. But his condition, and that of thousands like him, remains critical. Many other children did not make it this far: they were buried by the roadside on their families’ desperate journeys to seek help.
In the Horn of Africa, the time has passed for early action. We need more and urgent humanitarian funding – across sectors like nutrition, water, health, child protection and education — to pull children back from the edge. Some 213,000 people in Somalia are now at risk of famine. This year in some in-patient treatment centres in the worst-affected areas, three times as many children have already died from severe acute malnutrition than in the whole of the year before. In a matter of weeks, we could witness an avalanche of child deaths.
G7 must not be distracted by Ukraine
We have a tiny, and shrinking, window to prevent a catastrophe, yet we are facing unprecedented challenges. The war in Ukraine is fuelling the emergency across the region: exacerbating rising global food and fuel prices, stopping vital wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia, and driving up the cost of life-saving therapeutic treatment for children with severe malnutrition.
The international community — led by the G7 who will meet in Germany from June 26-28 — needs to commit additional resources now to save lives, ensuring attention on the war in Ukraine does not divert funds, or focus, from other crises. We also need to prepare for future disasters, including what might hit the Horn of Africa next year, with much more urgency.
As climate change spurs more and increasingly complex emergencies, G7 leaders must follow through with their commitment to early action and invest in work that will help build the resilience of families in the region for the long term — such as improving nutrition, health, water, education, and cash transfer programmes.
And, when the alarm bell rings again as the first warning signs of an emergency unfold, the world must act immediately: no matter the visibility of the crisis, and no matter where the children live.
Rania Dagash is UNICEF's Deputy Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.