Responding to East Africa's food security crisis in 2017, preparing for next year

Aid workers sorting food packs prior to distribution at the Biringi refugee camp in Ituri province, in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo by: Dieudonné Wanican / Trocaire / CC BY

NAIROBI — East Africa has endured four seasons in a row that have failed to bring adequate rains. This most recent, below average rainy season has pushed the region deeper into a humanitarian crisis that has left millions in urgent need of food, water, and medical treatment.

Failed crops and the widespread death of livestock, compounded with conflict in countries including South Sudan and Somalia, have led to the massive displacement of people across the region. At the same time, failed rains and ongoing conflict provide little incentive to return home.

The brunt of this ongoing crisis happened over the past year and the humanitarian sector has had to navigate through a complicated operating environment in order to reach the needs of the people. This has included challenges such as large cholera outbreaks and attacks against aid workers, all while working to ensure that communities don’t slip into famine. Some of the strategies the sector has used include scaling up cash transfer programs and localizing responses, among others.

The forecast for 2018 is now for a fifth consecutive below average rainy season, which has left little room for optimism among humanitarian groups in the region who fear next year will be even tougher than 2017.

Communities on the brink

During the 2011 famine in the region, which killed more than a quarter of a million people, the humanitarian sector didn’t mobilize at a quick enough pace, Liljana Jovceva, head of program for the World Food Programme’s Somalia Office, told Devex. At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017, as the pressing needs surrounding the drought became more evident, one of the biggest challenges for agencies such as WFP was convincing the humanitarian community that it needed to scale up its efforts, and it needed to do it quickly to prevent famine, she said

Famine was declared in two counties in South Sudan in February in the northern part of the country. The declaration sparked an increase in aid targeting these areas, which worked to curb the localized outbreaks. But severe food insecurity has continued to increase throughout the year in South Sudan, hitting a record high of 6 million people in September, amounting to 56 percent of the population, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. By the end of this year, the figure is nearly double what it was a year ago.

But a large-scale humanitarian response did stave off famine in Somalia this year. After the famine alert was signaled by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit and Famine Early Warning Systems Network in January, a rapid scale up of food, cash and livelihood assistance followed, according to UNOCHA.

In those early days, the humanitarian sector in Somalia coordinated closely with donors, frontloading money, former International Organization for Migration's Somalia Chief of Mission Gerard Waite told Devex during an interview in July.

“The agencies, NGOs, and government worked very quickly at the beginning of the onset of the crisis to prevent displacement and the worst effects of the drought, to prevent famine,” he said.

Humanitarian partners also established three Drought Operations Coordination Centers and an Assessment Working Group to serve as a forum for supporting coordinated needs assessments for populations directly affected by the drought.

Many of the measures taken in response to the food security crisis this year were a result of lessons learned from the 2011 famine, said Jovceva.

Restricted access

As the humanitarian sector worked to combat the impacts of the drought, it also struggled with access to certain populations because of threats facing aid workers.

Between October and January, 19 humanitarians were killed in South Sudan and there were 451 violent attacks against humanitarian personnel and assets, according to UNOCHA.  The number of monthly reported access incidents increased this year over last year.

Insecurity jeopardizes South Sudan famine relief

The United Nations has declared the first famine since 2011 in South Sudan. Yet even if all the resources were marshaled to address it, insecurity and ongoing fighting are stymieing efforts to reach those in need.

Transport by road in South Sudan became more difficult in 2017 than previous years because of security, Serge Tissot, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations representative in South Sudan, told Devex. This meant that FAO, for example, had to transport seeds by airplane, which is more costly and resulted in a decrease in total area planted with crops this year.

Because of the limitations surrounding safety concerns in the country, some 800,000 internally displaced persons this year lived in areas where humanitarian assistance was not reliable, according to UNOCHA.

Humanitarians also increasingly became a target in Somalia. The first 10 months of 2017 saw rising violence against humanitarians, particularly in southern and central Somalia, according to the agency. There were over 130 violent incidents impacting humanitarian organizations, leading to the death of 15 and injury of 31, and an increase in abductions for ransom over previous years.

Scaling up cash transfers

Cash transfers have been used throughout the region as a means to distribute aid during the crisis. Somalia, in particular, has seen a massive scale up of this type of programming in the past year. Around 3 million people are now receiving some type of cash assistance, Johan Heffinck, head of office Somalia for the European Commission Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, told Devex.

WFP, for example, had about 10 percent of its distributions in Somalia in the form of cash transfers in 2015 and now it is about 60 percent, according to Jovceva.

Hassan Affey Ali, one of the 1.4 million displaced persons in Somalia, has grown a sewing business in the Buuloduuf internal displacement camp with the help of cash transfers. Experience the multimedia story.

It is a more efficient way to deliver aid, Calum McLean, global thematic coordinator for cash and basic needs for ECHO, told Devex. In Somalia, around 80 cents of every dollar is reaching the beneficiary. In-kind food aid is around 60 cents, he said.

Cash transfer programs were also part of the response in other countries, such as South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

Cholera outbreaks

As water sources diminished, people drank whatever water they can find, leading to outbreaks of cholera across the region. Overcrowded internal displacement camps lacking access to proper sanitation, including latrines, became hotbeds of the disease.

In Somalia, there were more than 78,000 cases of acute watery diarrhea and cholera and over 1,100 deaths this year, according to UNOCHA.

In Somaliland, as previously reported by Devex, the Somali Red Crescent Society used volunteers to operate oral rehydration points, which helped to curb the cholera outbreak. The use of volunteers to identify and treat less severe cases reduced the burden on trained health professionals and also allowed treatment to reach insecure areas.

The World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health of Somalia launched the nation’s first oral cholera vaccination campaign in March. It was also the largest cholera vaccination campaign ever conducted in Africa.

South Sudan saw its longest-running cholera outbreaks in the nation’s history this year, which is expected to continue into next year, according to UNOCHA.

Coordination and localization

For the first time, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross combined forces for a coordinated response in a few countries, in order to better position the local Red Cross societies in their response, Michael Charles, the head of office for IFRC South Sudan, told Devex. The two organizations typically operate independently. One of these countries was South Sudan. The IFRC and ICRC supported the South Sudan Red Cross with its response through a combined plan and international appeal, as well as worked to help the SSRC on capacity building, assisting in logistics, among other support.

This approach was also used in Yemen and Nigeria, but South Sudan is where this strategy is working most effectively, said Charles.

“At the beginning it was quite hard to agree. But then when we started implementing, we saw that the benefit was so much more than one institution doing it alone,” he said.

Next year’s forecast

A fifth consecutive below average rainy season is expected for next year, leaving little room for optimism among the humanitarian sector about conditions in the region.  

In 45 countries, an estimated 76 million people are expected to require emergency food assistance next year, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria face a credible risk of famine.

In January 2017, some 32 percent of the South Sudanese population was severely food insecure, whereas it is expected this will be at 48 percent in early 2018, according to UNOCHA.

“Given the severity of food and nutrition needs in 2017, the worst case scenario will see multiple locations across the country in famine conditions in 2018,” said UNOCHA.

In Somalia, 1 in 2 remain acutely food insecure and an estimated 2.1 million people are internally displaced, according to UNOCHA.

“I’m afraid that 2018 might be even more difficult,” Francesco Rigamonti, the regional humanitarian coordinator for Horn, East and Central Africa for Oxfam, told Devex. “We are far from a solution. The external environment, in terms of international attention and willingness to put even more resources on the table, I’m not sure is there. That is my real concern.”

Read more Devex coverage on humanitarian response.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.