The effects of drought in the Horn of Africa go far beyond hunger

Eleven-year-old Kamal* walked barefoot across scorched scrubland for a week from his home in Somalia to Kenya. With their crops and livestock devastated by drought, Kamal’s family had no choice but to leave and try their luck in a new country.

Kamal was lucky. Unlike many children who died along the way, he made it across the Kenyan border, and is now living in Dolow, near Ethiopia.

But there, too, the situation is desperate.

* Not his real name. Name has been changed to protect his privacy.

Tirig, who is six years old, stands with her sister Saua, outside their makeshift shelter in Burao, Somalia. Drought has forced their family to leave home in search of water and food — particularly because the family's goats are now all dead. ©UNICEF/UN056038/Holt

After two years of below-normal rainfall, the Horn of Africa has been hit with the worst drought in over half a century. Almost 12.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

  • In some regions of Kenya, as a result of low rainfall and high food prices, some 3.5 million people do not have access to adequate food. Acute malnutrition has reached 37% in parts of northeast Kenya.
  • In Somalia, approximately, 510,000 people are in Phase 3 (Crisis) and 700,000 people in Phase 4 (Emergency) of the Integrated Phase Classification, which describes the severity of food emergencies (Phase 5 is Famine).
  • In Ethiopia, despite enhanced rainfall during April and May, food security continues to deteriorate, particularly in southern and southeastern pastoral areas. An estimated 7.8 million people require humanitarian assistance.

girl IDP Somalia webA girl stands outside her shelter in a camp for internally displaced persons camp in Somalia. All photos © Unicef.

The impact of drought goes far beyond hunger

In addition to hunger, the drought has resulted in massive displacement, impacted education and led to an increase in child labor. The effects of drought are exacerbated by conflict in the region and can lead to repeated displacement, deaths, increased vulnerability to harmful practices like FGM, loss of education, increased exposure to risks such as recruitment into the armed groups, etc.

  • In Somalia, 714,000 people have been displaced because of the drought since November 2016. Intense fighting reported in the same period caused the further displacement of over 15,000 people.
  • In Ethiopia, more than 843,000 people remain displaced due to drought and conflict in the Gambella region.
  • In Kenya, over 41,000 people are displaced due to conflict, drought and floods.
  • In Somalia, 79,807 children are out of school; at least 175 schools are closed in Ethiopia; and in Kenya about 175,000 children are not attending schools as a direct result of the drought. Heightened insecurity due to conflict in northeastern parts of Kenya has caused non-local teachers to flee leading to the closure of over 18 schools.
  • The school dropout rate is increasing as negative coping mechanisms are being adopted, including children having to help their families search for water, or to seek work to be able to buy food.
  • In Kenya an estimated 175,655 people – including 139,000 children – are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation; 122,655 are at risk of gender-based violence.
  • A sharp increase of children living on the streets has been reported in Kenya, leading to a rise in child labor in urban centers.

Mohammed Ali Abouka in school Somalia webMohammed, 10, is fortunate to be in school. Here, he sits in a classroom at the UNICEF-supported Salaama primary school in Galkayo, Somalia, April 2017. "When I grow up I want to be a teacher in school," Mohammed says proudly, "because the teacher is the second father to the children. If my teacher teaches me well, I will be just like him and teach small children."

Risks to children’s safety increase during humanitarian crises

There is much evidence to suggest that children are more vulnerable to inadequate care, abuse, exploitation and neglect during humanitarian crises. Discriminatory attitudes and practices that existed prior to the emergency often intensify, and children are excluded from life-saving child protection services or information due to their gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability.

They are at risk of recruitment into armed forces and groups, sexual violence, separation from their families, psychosocial distress, trafficking and economic exploitation. They face genocide, physical violence, killing and maiming, and other forms of harm.

Family separation and the breakdown of national and community-based child protection systems make girls and boys especially vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, violence and neglect.

Child protection in emergencies

Because of children’s increased vulnerabilities in emergencies, a robust child protection system is critical. However, child protection services, including security, justice and social services, are often weakened in an emergency, which can result in an environment rife with violations against children.

Child protection in emergencies (CPiE) refers to all efforts to prevent and respond to abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence against children in the aftermath of a disaster. It includes, as a first step, guaranteeing that children receive all the necessary humanitarian assistance that is required for their safety and well-being. CPiE prioritizes the fulfilment of certain rights for children in emergencies, namely those that protect children against maltreatment and ensure their survival and well-being.

Assisting children in the context of an emergency has to be done through careful interventions, which address both their immediate needs and protect them from long-term harm. CPiE is a multi-sectoral area of work involving many actors. As such, we all need to be prepared to act, and equipped with the necessary resources that enable us to provide an effective and a well-rounded response.

Kids pull water from a wellIn a desert area two children are pulling up water from a well, while a woman with a herd of sheep passes by.

ChildFund responds to the crisis in the Horn of Africa 

ChildFund is responding to the drought emergency in the Horn of Africa.

In addition, in my role as ChildFund Alliance’s rapid response consultant, I’m currently in Kenya training the government, partners and other stakeholders to strengthen coordination and information management for child protection.

As a result of this work:

  • CPiE messages have been disseminated to over 50,000 listeners through local radio stations in Kenya to prevent family separation and exploitation of children.
  • Community child-friendly spaces or areas for children and youth have been set up, and interim care services provided for children.
  • Community-based monitoring, reporting and response to the needs of children, adolescent girls and women survivors of abuse and exploitation, including gender-based violence that is often not reported, have been established.
  • Follow-up visits are being conducted for children who have been reunited to ensure they are cared for and protected.
  • Cases are being identified and referred to relevant service providers.
  • The flash appeal has been reviewed to reflect the current geographic needs

So far, close to 14,000 children have been reached with child protection activities (including identification, tracing and reunification of separated children with caregivers, rescue of children from child marriages and from exploitative labor, and the provision of psychosocial support).

This is the first in a series of three blogs by Fred Mugabi. The second blog will look more deeply at child protection in emergencies. The third will tell the story of a courageous woman who is fighting to end female genital mutilation in eastern Kenya.


Fred MugabiFred Mugabi is seconded by Child Fund Alliance (CFA) to the Child Protection Area of Responsibility (CP AoR) as Information Management Officer (IMO). The CP AoR is led by UNICEF. Fred has over six years of humanitarian response experience, starting as an intern with Uganda Reached the Aged Association in Western Uganda. He later joined Hold the Child Organization supporting child protection in emergencies and education in emergencies in Jonglei State, South Sudan, before moving to the Education Cluster (UNICEF) in 2014 as Information Management Officer, where he has worn two hats as IMO and Cluster Coordinator in 2015 and backstopped as IMO for the Child Protection Sub-Cluster. Before joining the CP AoR, Fred supported the Education Cluster in Erbil, Iraq. He can be reached here.