Map of food insecurity hot spots across East Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa faces long-term effects of famine

  • Environmental factors have caused food insecurity across sub-Saharan Africa
  • Social and political factors have made the problem much worse in some areas
  • These problems will likely last for years
  • The result will be a vicious circle of violence, hunger and displacement

The United Nations has formally declared a famine in areas of South Sudan and has issued a famine warning for parts of Somalia and Nigeria. Like the word “genocide,” international organizations only use the word “famine” when the situation is both widespread and dramatic.

The food crises and increasing dependency on aid in southern Africa, East Africa and the Lake Chad Basin have varying causes and degrees of intensity. While acute malnutrition in parts of southern Africa are mostly the result of extreme weather events, in the Horn of Africa and the Lake Chad Basin, violent conflict, displacement and chronic poverty are major factors.

Southern Africa

Droughts are cyclical in southern Africa, but the one that began in 2016 has been particularly intense due to the stronger-than-average El Niño that year, leading the Southern African Development Community to declare a regional drought disaster. The decline in grain output and grain reserves, increased reliance on imports, and spikes in food prices (aggravated by depreciating currencies) compromised both the availability of and access to food, leaving 16 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

Food security

Levels of food security are measured by the availability of food, the economic and physical access to food, and the stability of food supply. There are different levels, ranging from situations in which communities are “food secure,” to famine and humanitarian catastrophe.

A famine is declared when one or more of these indicators occur: more than 30% of children under age five suffer from acute malnutrition, daily mortality rates exceed two per 10,000 people and/or 20% of households face extreme food deficits, with no ability to cope.

International aid, as well as regional and government-led efforts, have helped to begin to stabilize the situation. In 2017, La Niña – a phenomenon that brings opposite conditions to those associated with El Niño – led to an increase in precipitation levels, with positive effects in the growing season.

East Africa

Countries in East Africa, and particularly in the Horn of Africa, were also severely affected by erratic, below-average rainfall. The magnitude of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, however, is largely conflict-related.

In South Sudan, a foundering economy, violent conflict and state fragility are the main drivers of famine in Unity State. In a country where more than 90 percent of the population depends on farming, herding or fishing, armed conflict and displacement have disrupted food supplies. Agricultural output and livestock numbers have dramatically declined, as farmers and herders are forced to leave their lands to escape from violence. Sharp increases in prices limit access to food in the capital, Juba, while people in conflict areas are increasingly isolated. A combination of bureaucratic barriers and instability has made it virtually impossible for humanitarian organizations to reach some communities.

In 2011, a famine killed 260,000 people in Somalia. At the time, an extreme drought throughout East Africa caused widespread food scarcity, but a famine was only declared in five regions under al-Shabaab control, in the Afgooye corridor refugee settlement and in camps for displaced people in Mogadishu. While environmental factors played a part, it was a weak state, conflict and instability that exacerbated the situation.

Drought has tripled the price of a barrel of water

Six years later, the environment is again part of the explanation. Drought has tripled the price of a barrel of water; water shortages and dislocation have led to large-scale livestock deaths and grain production has virtually collapsed – in 2016 yields were the lowest in 10 years.

In Eritrea, which has one of Africa’s most isolated and repressive regimes, there are strong indications that acute malnutrition is widespread. However, fearing international scrutiny, President Isaias Afwerki has consistently denied that there is a crisis, only admitting a “harvest shortfall.”

Lake Chad Basin

Some 7.1 million people are living under emergency levels of food insecurity across Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Again, nature is playing a part in the tragedy: the region is a dry zone, and cyclical droughts compromise agricultural production. However, the severity of the situation is largely a consequence of unprecedented levels of population displacement, as millions are forced to live in camps, unable to work their land and raise their herds. According to data from the International Organization for Migration, the Boko Haram insurgency accounts for 92.9 percent of the region’s internally displaced people (IDP), while community clashes account for 5.5 percent and natural disasters for 1.5 percent.

A father holds his baby at a refugee camp in Mogadishu
A father holding his baby among a group of men gathered at a refugee camp in Mogadishu, Somalia, where the UN has issued a famine warning (source: dpa)

Security constraints in the region – reflecting a lack of government control in remote areas and the proliferation of terrorist groups and organized crime networks – have prevented the adoption of recovery programs and intensified the adverse effects of recurrent droughts. In Northeastern Nigeria, the situation is particularly critical due to Boko Haram’s violent campaign, which started in 2009. Initially a localized Nigerian issue, Boko Haram’s reach now extends throughout the region.

Effects of displacement

The crisis also reflects the limits of humanitarian assistance. Refugee and IDP camps, which were designed as temporary solutions, have become home to millions of Africans, where many second- and third-generation displaced people now live.

The refugee complex in the Kenyan town of Dadaab, in one of the country’s poorest counties, was created in 1991. Although Dadaab plays a crucial role in the local economy, the Kenyan government has repeatedly stated its intention to close it, describing the camp as a terrorist training ground for al-Shabaab. In fact, the attack on the nearby Garissa University College was planned there. For now, the plan to close it down has been blocked by the country’s high court.

The Kakuma camp in the impoverished Turkana County, in northwestern Kenya, is now home to almost 200,000 refugees, most of them from South Sudan. Tensions between refugees and Turkana communities are rising, as people outside the camp face severe food and water shortages, a situation aggravated by prolonged drought.

Refugees face water and food shortages, bringing the situation close to the breaking point

Contrary to Kenya, Uganda is praised as one of the most welcoming countries in the world, granting refugees land and permission to work and travel. However, the country is facing dramatic challenges in hosting 800,000 South Sudanese refugees. The recently created Bidi Bidi settlement is set to become the world’s largest refugee camp by the end of this year. Refugees face water and food shortages, bringing the situation close to the breaking point, according to both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ugandan government.


Considering the impact of cyclical droughts, population growth, rural-urban migration patterns, population displacement and weak structural conditions, food security levels in some sub-Saharan regions are expected to deteriorate over the next decade. The outlook is particularly bad for regions where natural and man-made factors come together. For some countries in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, unreliable access to food will remain the norm for millions.

In southern Africa, the outlook for food security has been improving since last year’s regional drought disaster, despite the persistence of natural threats. Madagascar, Mozambique and Malawi have been affected by extreme weather events, including tropical cyclones and floods (effects of La Niña) and an armyworm outbreak is compromising crop production in Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. However, food prices are stabilizing and the prospects for the upcoming harvest are positive.

Food production deficits in the region will remain. Food imports – mainly rice, maize and wheat – and aid dependency are expected to increase in the coming years. South Africa will come under increasing migratory pressure. In cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg, episodes of xenophobic violence against immigrants will persist, aggravated by the country’s political crisis. However, relative political stability, high agricultural potential, effective recovery mechanisms and increasing regional trade are expected to gradually reduce the intensity of the food crisis, despite the adverse effects of erratic weather.

Devastating consequences

In South Sudan, where conflict has disrupted agricultural production and famine has become a weapon of war, the current crisis is expected to have devastating long-term consequences. Even under a best-case – and highly unlikely – scenario of a military solution to the conflict, food insecurity will remain extreme this year due to high prices for food and transport, as well as disruption to people’s livelihoods – consequences of mass displacement. Sudan’s creation of humanitarian corridors into South Sudan will help improve the image of President Omar al-Bashir’s regime internationally.

Women waiting for food aid in Unity State, South Sudan
Women waiting for food aid in Unity State, South Sudan, one of the regions worst hit by famine, according to the UN (source: dpa)

In Somalia, the positive effects of early warnings, the extension of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) mandate, an improved political and security situation (compared to 2011) and a strong and proactive diaspora will help mitigate the effects of the ongoing crisis. However, food and water scarcity will increase competition for resources, potentially reigniting ethnic and tribal conflicts. Furthermore, unlike in 2011, when al-Shabaab blocked aid delivery, the group is now delivering food assistance to some communities in the south. This may increase its support among people in the area.

Popular support for Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region has decreased, following years of attacks against civilians and significant gains by both Nigerian and regional forces against the group. However, as displaced people return home, Boko Haram’s violence and armed clashes with the Nigerian Army persist. At the same time, cities in the region are under unsustainable pressure, as people flee to urban areas in search of security. They typically settle in slums, where access to basic services is weak, making them particularly vulnerable.

Vicious circle

The unprecedented number of displaced people who have lost their productive assets and survive in extreme conditions – many without access to adequate food, health-care services or education – will increase levels of vulnerability and set back the region’s development for a long time. Even under a best-case scenario of gradual stabilization, it will be extremely difficult to reverse the vicious circle of poverty and violence in the region. Boko Haram’s ability to adapt and the emergence of new terrorist groups in the region indicate that underlying challenges to food security will persist.

The rapid increase of displaced people will become one of Africa’s main challenges. More and more of them are under the care of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whose financial needs are growing much faster than donors’ capacity and generosity. Because most refugees and displaced people concentrate in extremely poor regions, conflicts between displaced and host communities over resources may intensify.

The rapid increase of displaced people will become one of Africa’s main challenges

In Kenya, for example, more than 20,000 Kenyans in the Garissa and Turkana counties, home to the Dadaab and Kakuma camps, were forced to abandon their communities because of drought. Tensions between refugees and security forces within the camps, and between refugees and host communities, are expected to rise. There is no easy solution to the problem. The closure of the Dadaab camp – a less likely scenario, at least for now – and the repatriation of Somali refugees would bring substantial humanitarian and security risks.

In Kakuma, tensions between refugees – who are not legally allowed to work – and local communities are recurrent. Another settlement, Kalobeyei, was created in 2016, based on an integrated development strategy. It attempts to integrate refugees and local communities, providing nondiscriminatory service for both. Despite its good intentions, the 14-year project, funded by the European Union and implemented by the UN, clearly points away from gradual repatriation. Tensions between the NGOs running the camp and the Kenyan government over sovereignty and refugees’ rights are expected to worsen, which could start to weigh on the country’s refugee policies.

In Uganda, the huge number of South Sudanese refugees may increase the potential for conflict in the long run. The high risks of returning to South Sudan and Uganda’s refugee-friendly policies will likely encourage long-term settlements. However, refugees are not allowed to own the land they are given, nor to become Ugandan citizens. With land becoming scarcer, conflicts could erupt.

Africa’s humanitarian crisis will have deep, long-lasting effects and continue to test the limits of international humanitarian aid systems. As pragmatism replaces value-driven politics and traditional donors become increasingly focused on domestic issues, aid will need to become less bureaucratic, more flexible and more efficient.

Famine and food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa

About 7.5% of the global population over 15 years of age experienced severe food insecurity in 2014-2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, this number reached 26%, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Southern Africa
Some 16 million people needed emergency humanitarian assistance in Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe as of early 2017, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

East Africa
More than 17 million people in the region are classified by the FAO as food-insecure and in need of food assistance. While global prices of wheat and maize have been stable, the food price index for East Africa has more than doubled over the past year. In some parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, staple cereals prices have reached record and near-record levels.

In Somalia, some 100,000 people are at imminent risk of death by starvation, 1 million are on the brink of famine and 4.9 million (representing about 45% of the country’s population) are severely food insecure. In 2011, famine killed 260,000 in Somalia. Settlements for displaced people were among the worst affected: in the Afgooye corridor refugee settlement and in camps for displaced people in Mogadishu, 17% of the children under five years old died. In 2017, 6.2 million Somalis need humanitarian assistance, including 2.9 million who require immediate food aid. (FAO, UN)

In Kenya, the number of people in need of emergency food assistance has doubled in recent months, reaching 3 million. 340,000 children under the age of five are acutely malnourished (Kenya Red Cross). The Kenyan government announced that the number of people in need of assistance could increase to 4 million. Northern counties are the worst hit by food shortages. Some 30,000 people and 180,000 cattle from Kenya and South Sudan have migrated to Uganda in search of water and pastures in 2017. (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA)

Lake Chad Basin
Some 7.1 million people live under crisis and emergency levels of food insecurity across Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, while 1.8 million people are at risk of starvation. In Nigeria, 5.1 million people will experience food insecurity if they do not receive support from humanitarian organizations in 2017. More than 4.8 million people are in urgent need of food assistance. (WFP, FAO, OCHA)

Refugees and displaced people in Africa

For most adult refugees and displaced people, it is virtually impossible to work; for children, the risk of being out of school increases fivefold.

East Africa
The Dadaab refugee complex in Garissa County, Kenya, hosts a total of 343,043 refugees in five camps, the vast majority of them from Somalia. About 43,000 of the camp residents are Kenyans who ended up enrolling as refugees to access food benefits and basic services. The Kakuma refugee camp hosts an estimated 165,000 refugees and asylum seekers, which represent 15% of the population in Turkana County. Since November 2016, 438,000 people have been displaced in Somalia. In March 2017, the number of new drought-driven displacements is more than 187,000. Almost 10% of the population in Somalia live in internally displaced camps and 26% are nomadic. (UNHCR, Population Estimation Survey for Somalia, 2015)

Lake Chad Region
Some 2,635,000 people are now displaced in the Lake Chad Region, both internally and across borders as refugees. About 82% of them are in Nigeria, 9% in Cameroon, 6% in Niger, and 3% in Chad. An estimated 62% of the displaced are under 18 and the great majority of displaced households (87%) have children. Northeastern Nigeria is the worst-hit area. About 1.8 million Nigerians are internally displaced, while 200,000 have fled to Cameroon, Chad and Niger. In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, the population has more than doubled to 2 million. Boko Haram violence has displaced 200,000 people in Cameroon, a country that hosts over 500,000 refugees, mostly from the Central African Republic and Nigeria. (UN, IOM, OCHA)

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