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La Niña and Climate Change Cause Exceptional Drought in East Africa, Threatening the Lives and Livelihoods of Millions: Rapid Humanitarian Response Needed

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  • East Africa
  • for immediate release: December 16, 2021
La Niña and Climate Change Cause Exceptional Drought in East Africa, Threatening the Lives and Livelihoods of Millions: Rapid Humanitarian Response Needed

Washington, D.C. — A Joint Alert highlighting the extreme food security risks associated with cumulative drought impacts in the eastern Horn of Africa has been issued by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development Climate Prediction and Applications Center (ICPAC), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN World Food Programme (WFP), and the European Joint Research Center. The last time such an alert was issued in 2017, the region faced widespread hunger.

This exceptional multi-season drought is driving a sharp increase in acute food insecurity: an estimated 10 million people face Crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity in drought-affected areas.  

Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia are already experiencing severe water shortages, rising food prices, reduced food availability due to repeated poor harvests and livestock deaths, and rapidly increasing food insecurity. 

Drought-induced food insecurity is occurring against the backdrop of large-scale conflict-driven food insecurity. More than 20 million people in the region will require humanitarian assistance due to the combined impacts of drought and conflict. 

During 2020 and 2021, a multi-year La Niña event, strengthened by climate change, has helped produce an exceptional three-season drought. As the region enters a long dry season, temperatures of the land’s surface are well-above normal and vegetation is desiccated. With heightened probability of another below-normal dry season in early 2022, the eastern Horn of Africa region is at risk of experiencing four consecutive seasons of drought—unprecedented since satellite record-keeping began in 1981. 

Since late 2016, there have been multiple exceptionally dry seasons interspersed with exceptionally wet seasons. Such wet seasons also generated devastating impacts: flooding, displacement, and a damaging locust outbreak that together caused crop and livestock losses affecting approximately 3.4 million people. These multi-year, compounding shocks without recovery have been exacerbated by COVID-19, which created massive economic upheaval alongside direct health impacts. 

The Joint Alert calls for extensive coordinated humanitarian responses by governments and donors to save lives and protect livelihoods, especially the provision of food, water, nutrition assistance, and livelihood protection programs, including water trucking, feed supply, and cash transfers. This Joint Alert complements additional analysis of the potential food security impacts of such shocks.

Climate change impacts in East Africa announce global risks

Climate change is amplifying the impacts of natural climate variations: human-induced warming in the western Pacific has driven a large post-1998 decline in East African rainfall, and these rainfall reductions are most prevalent during La Niña events. At the same time, increasing air temperatures worsen droughts by increasing the atmosphere’s ability to pull moisture from plants and soil. Together, these influences set the stage for dangerous but predictable sequential droughts.

All around the world, increases in air temperature, and consequent increases in evaporative demand, reduce the amount of water available in soils, streams, and reservoirs whenever seasonal rainfall drops below normal.  This drying effect intensifies droughts and causes dry conditions to evolve into drought more frequently.  Society needs to prepare for and adapt to this pervasive impact of climate change.

View the latest report and ongoing analysis on the FEWS NET East Africa page.


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