Speaking to colleagues at Barnfonden, Chege Ngugi, Africa Regional Director for ChildFund International, warns that long-term solutions must not be forgotten in favor of urgent short-term efforts.
Currently, over 36 million people in East Africa are being impacted by the worst drought in decades. There is a severe shortage of both food and water, and millions of children are acutely malnourished. Other factors, such as high population growth, extreme poverty, and poor infrastructure, are also contributing to the increasingly severe impacts of extreme weather in East Africa.
In the wake of climate change, violence against children is also increasing. Girls are more likely to be married young so that the family will have one less mouth to feed, while many children are being forced into work at an early age to help put food on the table.
Much of the Africa region is experiencing abnormally high food costs. This is due to macroeconomic difficulties and exacerbated by domestic grain shortages and changes in global food and fuel supplies. The ongoing lack of water increases the risks of diseases such as dehydration, waterborne diseases (including cholera), skin infections, and malnutrition.
Chege, who lives in Nairobi, has worked for ChildFund International for many years, having held country director roles in Ethiopia, Kenya and Mozambique. For the last two years now, Chege has lead the organisation’s overall operations in Africa.
Chege talks about the three Cs: the major challenges many countries in Africa are struggling with today. These are climate change, conflict, and the after-effects of COVID-19. Climate change contributes to disasters, such as prolonged droughts, floods and cyclones.
Increasing risks to children
The current drought has far-reaching consequences. The lack of food and water is a direct threat to children and their families, and according to Chege the situation is acute in many places. He says a school in Kenya that offers a food program was recently stormed by desperate parents: “It is an extreme situation that involves life and death.”
Many people in the region depend on their livestock and make a living through agriculture. Because of the drought, animals die and crops are repeatedly destroyed. Families are then forced to move to other regions to access food and water. This has a detrimental impact on children’s school attendance, safety, and security.
“Parents are also forced to leave their children alone at home when they themselves set off to look for work, food, and water. The children are then extremely vulnerable and exposed. Gender-based violence against girls, for example, is very common,” says Chege.
Conflict and pandemic aftershocks
The drought is also causing conflicts over resources, says Chege. Civil upheaval in Ethiopia and Sudan is ongoing, which further aggravates the suffering of the population.
At a global level, the war in Ukraine has contributed to a shortage of grain and a rise in the prices of many essential items, including the cost of fuel. This comes at a time when many countries in the region are still recovering from the economic impacts of COVID-19.
“The effects of the pandemic have been devastating. When COVID-19 began to spread, children were taken out of school and then had no opportunity to learn at home, as many families do not have access to either the internet or electricity.
“Even before COVID, there were many children who could not read a simple sentence. With the pandemic, this number has increased sharply,” says Chege.
Creating long-term solutions
Chege says there is much we can do to improve the situation, which is not only about distributing food and water to families in the short-term but focussing on child protection and long-term sustainability.
“Involving children and young people in driving change is fundamental,” says Chege.
“We have to raise these issues, create awareness, and educate at different levels in society. We need to build long-term and sustainable resilience to climate change and we need to involve the children and families affected.”
He cites the distribution of drought-resistant crops as a concrete example of the many climate-responsive efforts that can be put in place. ChildFund is also working with local partners who have specialist expertise in the needs and potential solutions for different communities.
Of course, resources are always needed: both financial and personnel resources, says Chege. But ultimately, education will be key to ensuring children have a brighter future. “With education, we can solve many of the problems that exist today. Education creates great opportunities and therefore it is something we must prioritize.”