For the first time ever, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is putting out a crisis alert to its annual Emergency Watchlist report. The IRC is calling for urgent action in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, with specific concern for intensifying famine in Somalia that has been dangerously neglected by the international community. By the time a famine is officially declared later this year, it will be too late to save hundreds of thousands of lives.
The IRC’s recognition of the growing risks facing East Africa led us to put Ethiopia and Somalia in the top 10 countries of concern in our Emergency Watchlist 2022, which identifies the countries most at risk of a new emergency or worsening humanitarian crisis. This assessment was based both on the IRC’s decades of experience working in the region and our unique Watchlist methodology. The IRC draws on dozens of quantitative and qualitative indicators such as state fragility, civil conflict, state capacity, and climate vulnerability.
The IRC’s assessment was driven by the region’s unique vulnerability. It is highly exposed to a host of unprecedented challenges – from an unparalleled pandemic, to escalating conflict, to the fallout from war in Ukraine – and drastically unprepared for new crises due to the compound impact of three major droughts in the past ten years. This year, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are in the middle of their longest, most severe drought in decades and have been disproportionately affected by the Ukraine conflict, given they were reliant on Russia and Ukraine for 90% of their wheat imports.
The number of people going hungry in the region is set to surpass 20 million by September – nearly a doubling compared to late 2021. Over three million of these people are already experiencing the most extreme levels of hunger, increasing their risk of death. The worst affected is Somalia, which is entering a famine that the IRC expects to be even more severe than the 2011 famine that killed 260,000 people. Today, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia make up 2% of the world’s population, but are home to 70% of the world’s most extremely food insecure.1 IRC teams on the ground report that people are dying already from starvation. Yet the crisis has struggled to attract the attention and funding it desperately requires.
There is nothing natural about famines in the twenty-first century. While a complex set of factors drove food insecurity, the slide into mass death is man-made, driven by international inaction. This crisis was predictable and preventable. It has been unfolding despite two years of repeated warnings. The lack of action reflects a wider failure of the international system.
It is already too late to stop people from dying, but there is still a window of opportunity to scale aid efforts to reduce the levels of death and suffering. Yet the international system is sitting in neutral at precisely the moment it needs to be accelerating. There is no time to wait for data collection to confirm what the IRC is already seeing on the ground: a country hurtling towards a catastrophic famine. A famine declaration will tell us when it is too late – that people are already dying en masse, not how many lives we can still save. Waiting to respond based on retrospective data will condemn hundreds of thousands to an unnecessary death. Instead the international community needs to look forward, applying a no-regrets approach.
Every day of inaction is a matter of life or death.