6 million people are at risk of starving in East Africa, and climate change deserves part of the blame

Secretary General António Guterres has spent the last few days in East Africa, visiting nations there that are slammed by drought and facing rising food prices. The drought, he said, looks to be the worst the area has seen in decades — worse even than a 2010 drought that triggered widespread famine across the region the following year, leading to the deaths of nearly 260,000 people.

The latest drought is in fact the third to sweep the region in the last quarter century, and the UN estimates that roughly 6 million people in Somalia, northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and South Sudan are in need of aid. Somalia has been hit the hardest — its government declared the drought a natural disaster on Feb. 28; the following week, more than 100 people died of hunger in less than 48 hours.

There is a clear link between this drought and the climatic changes at work around the world, which have also ushered in an early spring in North America and brought Arctic sea ice to record lows. “In pre-1970s Kenya, there was a serious drought around once every ten years. By the 1980s, this had doubled to once every five years,” the UN Environmental Program noted in a recent release. “Today, there are droughts almost every other year.”

Changes in rainfall aren’t the only climate shocks facing East Africa if the world doesn’t rein in fossil fuel emissions — the entire continent is poised to see more and more days with extreme heat, with what might be considered an anomalously hot day in 2017 becoming the norm by 2040. The tropics, in general, have less temperature variability than other parts of the world, so rising global temperatures will hit the region particularly hard.

This will be particularly challenging to East Africa’s farmers, and, without adaptation, could make famines like the one sweeping the region now an increasingly common phenomenon.

It could also exacerbate existing conflicts and spark new ones. Security experts worry about climate change’s potential to serve as a threat multiplier, worsening conditions that lead to war. In fact, the world’s first widely recognized climate-linked conflict occurred just to the north of the area currently hit hardest by drought, in Darfur. According to a 2007 UN Environmental Program report, shifting rainfall patterns there meant that the Sahara desert’s boundaries grew as pastureland and sources of water dried up, fueling local tensions, and placing “unavoidable pressure on people through migration, displacement, food insecurity and impoverishment, possibly ending in conflict.”

October –December cumulated rainfall anomaly in percentage .

The current drought may similarly exacerbate the conflict in Somalia, where the government is struggling to regain southern parts of the country that have fallen under control of al-Shabab.

NGOs, local governments and the UN are trying to help farmers adapt to the changing climate, and during his visit to Somalia and Kenya, Guterres called for increased international involvement — including $825 million in aid — to address the current famine.

“People are dying, this must stop,” Guterres said at a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya yesterday. “The international community must act now.” He urged the Kenyan government to work with the incoming Somali government to address the crisis.

Farmers in Kenya and Somalia depend on two rainy seasons — Gu, in the spring, and Deyr, in the fall. Last year’s spring rainfall was light, and drought set in during the fall, when Deyr also failed to bring rain. But 2017’s spring rainy season, which usually lasts from March until May, is about to begin. Unfortunately, forecasts predict that this rainy season, like last year’s, might also be light.

That means that the region could be in for many more months of famine, illustrating the kind of climate-linked disaster that will become more common throughout the developing world in the decades ahead.