Children play at a camp for internally displaced persons in Belet Weyne, Somalia | Photo: EPA/Daniel Irungu
Children play at a camp for internally displaced persons in Belet Weyne, Somalia | Photo: EPA/Daniel Irungu

In Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, millions of children face extreme food scarcity and lack clean drinking water, according to UNICEF. The Horn of Africa is currently facing its worst drought in decades.

UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell called for more international aid for the Horn of Africa region last week, following a four-day visit to Ethiopia. The region is currently experiencing the worst drought in 40 years, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

In a statement released on April 28, Russell recounted her experiences as follows: "In Somali region, one of the worst-hit drought areas in the country, I met children and families who have literally lost everything. Their livestock have died and as a result, they have no source of income. They cannot feed their children and are on the move in search of food and water. We need to reach these families now before it is too late.”

Worst drought in four decades

Due to the three consecutive dry seasons, four countries in the Horn of Africa are experiencing a severe drought, according to UNICEF: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. In just two months -- between February and April -- the number of children impacted by the drought increased by 40% -- from 7.25 million to at least 10 million, UNICEF said in a statement released ahead of Russell's visit.

The Horn of Africa region hosts a large number of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people, who are often particularly vulnerable in situations of crisis. Ethiopia and Somalia alone had an internally displaced population of more than four million and nearly three million, respectively, in late 2021, according to UN migration agency IOM.

No clean drinking water

UNICEF chief Russell said that many people in the region faced not only hunger and malnutrition, but also lacked access to clean drinking water. "Children are forced to drink contaminated water, and this puts them at risk of cholera and other killer diseases. In Somali region, we have had reports of over 1,000 cases of measles with 16 confirmed deaths," she said.

A total of 1.7 million children across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia require urgent treatment for severe acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF. They warned that if rains fail in the coming weeks, this figure will rise to 2 million.

Beyond hunger, thirst: Schools close, child marriages

UNICEF said that the drought not only caused children to experience malnutrition and disease, but also negatively impacted their lives in other ways.

Over 600,000 children in drought-hit regions had dropped out of school as a result of the drought, the organization said.

They said that children dropped out because they no longer had time to go to school -- instead, they had to travel long distances in search of food and water, or they had to look after other children while their caregivers left to try to find water for their families and livestock. Many schools have reportedly also shut down due to lack of water.

UNICEF also warned that the drought could cause a rise in child marriages. "Child marriage often increases in times of drought as families marry off their daughters in the hope that they will be better fed and protected, as well as to earn dowries," Russell said. "In some drought-hit areas in Ethiopia, there has been a 51% increase in child marriage."


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