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Food assistance needs rise in the Horn of Africa, with multi-season drought likely to persist in late 2021

  • Alert
  • East Africa
  • May 19, 2021
Food assistance needs rise in the Horn of Africa, with multi-season drought likely to persist in late 2021

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Food assistance needs are sharply increasing in the Horn of Africa, driven by consecutive below-average rainfall seasons in late 2020 and early 2021. Assistance needs are already high in this region due to the impacts of conflict in Ethiopia and Somalia, recurrent drought and floods since 2016,[i] high inflation in Ethiopia, and the COVID-19 pandemic on household food and income sources. In August 2020, FEWS NET released an alert highlighting the potential for heightened assistance needs through late 2021 due to La Niña-driven drought. This forecast has come to fruition with the generally poor performance of the March to May rains.[ii] Given the imminent end of the season and the vulnerability of the Horn to crop failure and livestock losses, the recent increase in rainfall in late April and early May is most likely inadequate to prevent worsening acute food insecurity. Current satellite vegetation conditions still indicate severe stress in many parts of the region. Furthermore, long-range forecasts indicate La Niña-like conditions are highly likely to re-emerge in late 2021, raising the likelihood of a third consecutive season of below-average rainfall. National governments and humanitarian actors are urged to immediately scale up and sustain interventions to support food and livelihood security, nutrition and health, and access to water through late 2021 and possibly early 2022.

Rainfall performed poorly in most crop- and livestock-dependent livelihood zones through mid-April, resulting in widespread drought at a critical window for planting and livestock reproduction (Figure 1). By mid-April, substantial deficits at 50-75 percent below the 40-year average were recorded in eastern Ethiopia, northern Somalia, and northern and coastal Kenya. Deficits of 25-50 percent were also observed in southeastern Kenya, southern Ethiopia, and southern Somalia. Despite moderate to heavy rainfall in late April and early May, the season’s approaching conclusion leaves insufficient time for recovery of crop yields, livestock reproduction, and milk production. At the same time, the rapid accumulation of heavy rain within a short timeframe raises the risk of localized flash and riverine floods.

Crop losses from the June-August 2021 harvests will likely be significant, driving deficits in household income from agricultural labor and crop sales, reductions in household food stocks, and a decline in household purchasing power. As of mid-April, many farmers had yet to plant cereal and cash crops due to inadequate rainfall or irrigated water in belg-dependent areas of southern and northeastern Ethiopia and gu-dependent areas of southern and northwestern Somalia. In several areas where farmers planted on time in Kenya and Somalia, crop development is well below normal. Domestic crop losses will contribute to persistently rising food prices through at least the mid-2021 harvests, even though market supply may be stabilized by food imports from regional and international sources and by near-normal crop production prospects in Kenya and Ethiopia’s western regions. In Ethiopia, staple food prices are already 50-100 percent above the recent five-year average.

Household food, milk, and water intake have deteriorated among pastoral households in northern, southern, and southeastern Ethiopia, central and northern Somalia, and – to a lesser extent – northern Kenya. Drought has led to water scarcity and poor livestock health, which has in turn diminished livestock market value, caused atypical livestock deaths, reduced milk production, disrupted breeding cycles, and led to increased conflict over water resources. Although some herd recovery is anticipated in the near term, poor households are likely to sell more livestock than usual to repay debt and fund food and water purchases during the upcoming dry season. However, since herd sizes – a key indicator of income-earning potential and access to milk – were already below typical levels, these sales will erode their livelihoods and coping capacity in the long term. Furthermore, high food prices are likely to constrain pastoralists’ purchasing power, especially in Ethiopia. 

Given the sharp increase in food insecurity in rural areas, the population in need of food assistance on the national level is expected to be similar to 2020 in Kenya and Somalia, higher than 2020 in Ethiopia, and to exceed the five-year average in all three countries through at least September. Increasingly widespread Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes and an increase in the number of households in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) are expected as the June to September dry season progresses in the eastern Horn (Figure 1). The most severe outcomes are expected in Tigray region of Ethiopia, though this is primarily due to the ongoing conflict. Although uncertainty exists with long-term forecasts, below-average rainfall appears highly likely during the October to December 2021 season. Three consecutive below-average rainfall seasons would lead to rapidly worsening food insecurity into early 2022, based on historical trends. As Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes are associated with moderate to large food consumption gaps and an atypical increase in acute malnutrition prevalence and mortality rates, national governments and humanitarian partners are urged to immediately scale up food, water, livelihood support, and nutrition and health assistance through at least the end of 2021 and possibly through early 2022.


[i] Since late 2016, eastern East Africa has experienced five very dry seasons, two exceptionally wet seasons, and only two normal seasons.

[ii] The March to May rainfall season is generalized at the regional level. Local rainfall seasons vary at the subnational level between February and June.

Figures Map of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya depicting drought conditions observed in April 2021 and projected food security outcomes

Figure 1

Figure 1

Source: FEWS NET

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