Drought fuelled by Ukraine war leaves 18m in Horn of Africa experiencing extreme hunger

The Horn of Africa is no stranger to droughts but this crisis is different, ITV News' Rageh Omaar reports

Turkana, in the northwestern corner of Kenya is the largest county in the country, and it is no stranger to hunger and the ravages of malnutrition.

Bordering the troubled nation of South Sudan, itself wracked by decades of civil war, tens of thousands of refugees have flooded to Turkana for safety.

Already one of the poorest parts of Kenya itself, Turkana has relied on international humanitarian assistance for decades - either for its own people or for the refugees from neighbouring South Sudan.  

Yet this year is like no other for Turkana.

The whole Horn of Africa region - Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia - is facing severe hunger and the threat of famine, in the worst crisis the most vulnerable part of the continent has ever faced.

Water is becoming so scarce that people are forced to dig into dried riverbeds in search of it. Credit: ITV News

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) says more than 18.4 million people “are already on the verge of starvation, about half of them children”.

Shaswat Saraf, IRC’s regional emergency director who has extensive experience in the region told me that by September this number could reach 20 million people.

“We have to talk about the threat of famine,” he said.

There are many reasons behind this emergency.

In the past three months, the number of children being treated for malnutrition on one hospital ward has increased 10-fold. Credit: ITV News

Four successive years of failed rains leading to drought, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the destruction by regional locust infestations. But there is a fourth factor which has made an already dire situation far, far worse - and that’s the impact of the war in Ukraine.

Every emergency aid worker, logistician and humanitarian co-ordinator I met and interviewed in Turkana was in no doubt that the war in Ukraine and Russia’s blockade of grain supplies in the Black Sea was a key factor in bringing the whole region to the brink of famine.

The huge spike in fuel and energy prices has made the delivery of aid far more expensive and the disruption of global supply chains has made the sourcing of even the most fundamental medicines needed for the oral rehydration of severely malnourished children like Resamol extremely difficult.

In fact Kenya reportedly ran out of Resamol twice this year.  

Children suffering from a lack of food in Kenya have been described as casualties of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Credit: ITV News

At almost every level, the impact of the war in Ukraine is proving to be the decisive factor in tilting a humanitarian crisis into a regional famine that could affect up to 20 million people who are facing severe food shortages.

For example, even the ability of food producing areas in the region to increase production is hampered even further by the dramatic drop in fertilisers from Ukraine and Russia who are both major producers. And food prices that have increased most dramatically are not so much luxury goods such as meat and dairy, but staple basic foodstuffs for the Horn of Africa such as cooking oil and cornmeal or maize.

By September more than 20 million people - half of them children - in the Horn of Africa could be facing starvation. Credit: ITV News

I spoke to Dr Kifa Otieno in the IRC’s main therapeutic ward in Kakuma, where he helps treat the most severely malnourished children.

Over the past three months the number of children coming into the ward has increased 10-fold.

Dr Otieno was blunt and precise. These children are the casualties of the war in Ukraine, he told me - as he pointed to emaciated children suffering from severe diarrhoea.

“There is war somewhere, there is hunger here, there is a high inflation rate, people are surviving on less than a dollar a day."

Donations to the IRC can be made here.

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