According to the United Nations, World Food Programme (WFP), up to 13 million people living in the Horn of Africa are facing severe hunger because of record breaking droughts brought about by dry weather and climate change. This is predicted to worsen unless various stakeholders take short and long-term actions.
One common factor that renders the Horn of Africa susceptible and vulnerable to droughts and food insecurity is that these countries' economies are largely dependent on subsistence rainfed agriculture, and nomadic pastoralism which are susceptible to climate change.
Recent research shows that the Horn of Africa is warming up faster than the global average, increasing the evaporation of water from the soil, and altering the rainfall patterns. This has led to substantial changes in precipitation, droughts, flooding events, pest outbreaks, migrations and many other disasters that have become common. In 2019, 2020, 2021 and more recently, in 2022, saw warnings of the scope and scale of the hunger crisis. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts, the region continues to suffer harsh climatic effects, while bearing minimal to no responsibility to the factors driving climate change.
Clearly, urgent and proactive sustainable actions are needed. Moreover, there is a need to change and improve on the strategies used in the past to anticipate, prepare, and prevent such catastrophic and humanitarian crises.
Firstly, to survive the recurrent drought episodes, Africa will need concerted regional efforts to accurately predict floods and droughts. This means having reliable drought monitoring and forecasting systems for water resources, soil moisture, ground water availability and food security.
Research has shown that when droughts are monitored, and timely seasonal forecasts provided, drought risk is manageable. Unfortunately, developing countries in the Horn of Africa are limited in their monitoring capacity right now largely because of unreliable monitoring networks, limited access to information and technology, low institutional capacity, as well as a lack of national policies on drought mitigation.
The good news is that there are existing satellite-based monitoring systems such as The African Flood and Drought Monitor (AFDM), a satellite monitoring system developed by Princeton University. Such innovative efforts can be adopted through institutional collaborations. Upon adoption, it is important to note that the sustainability of these monitoring systems will depend on the capacity of scientists and professionals charged with maintaining and running the system, interpreting, and disseminating the real-time updates and forecasts. Therefore, countries will have to identify key personnel at regional centers and national agencies and work with established researchers at affiliated universities, while at the same time training new young scientists and professionals from Africa.
Secondly, as long as climate change continues to surge, the Horn of Africa will only have the option of joining forces towards mitigation and/or adapting to the situation through diversification of livelihoods. This adaptation will be achieved by tapping into activities that are less sensitive to drought and livelihood shocks. These options include employment, both in and beyond the agriculture and livestock sectors and in both rural and urban settings.
Arguably, mitigation efforts must go hand in hand with innovation and paradigm shift in farming and agriculture. Moving forward, African countries that consistently suffer from repeated droughts must tap into innovative water-efficient technologies, use of drought-tolerant seeds, reduced-risk crop protection products, improved rainwater-harvesting technologies, and optimized irrigation systems that can help mitigate these challenges. As for the livestock sector, favorable policies and investments that facilitate access to grazing areas, access to water sources and creation of facilities and spaces that allow livestock farmers to transform livestock into high-value products will improve the performance of this sector and protect the livelihood of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa.
Thirdly, to best strengthen livelihoods, we must view drought as a long-term development challenge that will require a multi-sectoral and multi-dimensional responses that include technological, institutional and policy interventions. At the moment, African governments will need to take proactive actions such as setting up safety nets for vulnerable communities as they build capacity on climate resilience. According to USAID, a resilient community needs to have the capacity to learn about what works, understand what the risks of each option are, have the skills to choose the best strategy for the given circumstances and learn how to further adapt that strategy to changing local conditions.
Fourthly, governments must devise good public-private partnership (PPP) models that will bring in more private players with the latest farm mechanization, technologies, and science. The role of private actors cannot be ignored since they have a fully integrated toolbox on what is working in developed countries, and other productive dry and hot areas.
Finally, science, technology and drought resisting technologies that are developed need to have a firm grounding by including and incorporating people on the grounds such as the smallholder farmers and locally trained scientists. Too often the research that has potential to revolutionize Africa’s drought issues lacks a strong grassroots foundation and lead researchers are usually based in the US, Europe, or other developed countries. These factors risk the sustainability of the measures and delays adoption. As such, to build capacity and science-based sustainable solutions, there is a need to be more inclusive.
There is no silver bullet to the multifarious challenges that Africa faces and this means that the continent needs concerted efforts, technologies and sustainable solutions to overcome climate related drought issues. Only by doing so, will the horn of Africa avoid, repeatable drought and hunger seasons.
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is an Assistant Professor with the Entomology Department at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Illinois. She is a Senior Food Security Fellow with New Voices, The Aspen Institute and also serves as a Clinton Global University Initiative (CGIU) mentor for Agriculture.
Kendi Muthomi is a food security connoisseur and scientist from Kenya, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida. She is the Co-founder of Kilimo Jijini, an urban farming community-based organization based in Nairobi, and an experienced researcher on the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) of Fruits and Vegetables. She is passionate about sustainability and has chosen to dedicate her career, using agriculture, to reaching the UN’s sustainable development goals. To reach her, you can send an email, Twitter or LinkedIn