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Mali and her family outside their home in Ethiopia.

Famine in Africa: The causes, history and how you can help

Africa is on the brink of a devastating famine that threatens to leave millions at risk of extreme hunger. A humanitarian catastrophe looms as the conflict in Ukraine, rising food prices, locust plagues, the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme drought intertwine to create mass food insecurity across the continent.  

In the Horn of Africa, there have been four consecutive failed wet seasons, leaving millions unable to grow crops and sustain livestock, and at risk of extreme hunger. Without urgent humanitarian aid, we could soon see starvation on an unprecedented scale.  

Snapshot of the Africa Food Crisis

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Ayoyo is a volunteer complaints officer who supports her community in southern Ethiopia. Photo: Zacharias Abubeker/Caritas Australia

More than 81.6 million people in eastern Africa facing food insecurity

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Children in a IDP Camp in northern Ethiopia. Photo: Caritas Australia.

Approximately 7 million children under 5 years are acutely malnourished in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia

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Woman making injera in an IDP camp in northern Ethiopia. Photo: Caritas Australia

18 million people facing severe hunger in the Horn of Africa

What is famine? 

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, famine is declared when malnutrition is so widespread that people start dying of starvation through a lack of access to food. For famine to be declared, it must meet these three criteria: 

  • At least 20% of households in an area face extreme food shortages. 
  • More than 30% of children suffer from extreme malnutrition. 
  • At least two in 10,000 people die from starvation, disease and/or malnutrition every day. 

In 2019, 27 million people were on the brink of famine. This number has since nearly doubled, with a staggering 50 million people worldwide currently at risk. 

Why is there famine in Africa? 

The causes of famine are complex and often interlinked with numerous other world events. Ongoing conflict, climate change, extreme poverty, displacement and political instability can create conditions that ultimately lead to famine.  

Conflict is often the main catalyst for famines. When war and violence occur, communities suffer. Conflict can drive large quantities of people away from their homes and land, depriving them of food and clean water. Without access to farmland or income-generating opportunities, communities are at risk of extreme hunger.  

Displacement does not simply mean people leave and resettle elsewhere. Families are torn apart through dislocation, vulnerability to disease increases, and people risk falling into poverty. When large numbers of people arrive in a new community, that community may not be equipped to handle a sudden surge in population and so there is typically a dramatic rise in local prices. 

Across Africa, conflict in countries such as Ethiopia, Yemen and South Sudan have displaced millions of the most vulnerable people. But it is not just conflict on the African continent that is causing food shortages. The war in Ukraine, despite occurring thousands of kilometres away, is pushing up global food prices.  

Countries in the Horn of Africa like Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan depend heavily on wheat imports from Russia and/or Ukraine. Ethiopia and Kenya also rely on fertiliser for over 80% of their crops, making a shortage of this particular commodity a recipe for disaster.   

We have even seen this in Australia where, despite being far away from conflict, the war in Ukraine has led to an increase in food prices. However, in countries that are already struggling to find food, this threatens to push them to the breaking point.  

The impact of climate change on famine in Africa 

Communities who contribute the least to global warming are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. As temperatures soar, unpredictable weather patterns will become increasingly frequent.  

Droughts have become more intense and common in recent years across the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, four consecutive years of drought have decimated livestock and rendered the land unusable for farming. Without water, there is little prospect of growing food for sustenance or for income.  

For women like Mali, a mother of eight living in Ethiopia, the ongoing drought is putting the lives of her family and community at risk. She has to walk nearly 24 hours to bring home water for her children, who can only eat one meal a day.  

Prior to the drought, Mali owned 20 goats, but now she is down to her final three, increasing her anxiety around providing food for her children. 

“We don’t know what will happen next because we need to plant the crops for next season now but there is no water. I don’t know what we will do.”

Mali

Which countries in Africa are at risk of famine?

Somalia

Parts of Somalia are likely to enter a state of famine in 2022 as the country battles another year of drought and ongoing conflict. The last famine declared in Somalia, in 2011, killed a quarter of a million people. Unless urgent action is taken, Somalia may face a catastrophic disaster that could put the lives of millions at risk.

Kenya

Nearly 4 million people in Kenya are at risk of severe hunger, particularly up north in areas such as Marsabit. A national state of disaster has been declared with vulnerable communities struggling to access food and clean water. 

Ethiopia

Ethiopia is facing its worst drought in nearly 40 years. This is on top of one of the worst locust swarms in the past decade and ongoing conflict that has displaced thousands of vulnerable people.

South Sudan

Following the 2017 famine, South Sudan is once again at risk of famine. Food security has reached its highest level since the country gained independence in 2011. As many as 8.3 million people - 75 percent of the population - are facing severe food insecurity.

The history of famine in Africa since World War II 

1958  Famine in Tigray claimed the lives of approximately 100,000 people. 

1968-1972 The Sahel drought devastated communities across Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, with an estimated 1 million deaths. 

1972-1973 – Intense droughts led to famine in Ethiopia. 

1982-1986 – Famine in Mozambique and Sudan arose as a result of civil war.  

1983-1985 – Famine in Ethiopia led to the deaths of up to 1.2 million people and prompted widespread international media coverage

1991-1992  Drought and civil war contributed to famine in Somalia.  

1998-2004 War in the Democratic Republic of the Congo led to starvation and disease-related deaths of more than 2.7 million people. 

2010/11 – Drought and conflict combined to cause famine in Somalia, with more than a quarter of a million deaths.

2016 - present  Civil war in Yemen have led to mass hunger across the country.  

2021 - present  The war in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple conflicts across the African continent, locust plagues and a recurrent drought have lefts more than 81.6 million people across eastern Africa at risk of food insecurity.  

How you can help people affected by the food crisis   

1. Learn about the food crisis in Africa  

Research conducted by Caritas Australia has found that while nearly all (98 per cent) of Australians are aware of the war in Ukraine and the global food crisis (86 per cent), almost half don’t know about the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. You can learn more about the global food crisis and share information about it with your friends on social media.  

2. Write to your local MP 

Be an advocate for change and write to your local Member of Parliament (MP) to voice your concerns about the food crisis.  The Help Fight Famine coalition is calling on the Australian Government to deliver an urgent $150 million Famine Prevention Package to stop a catastrophe in the worst-affected hunger hotspots in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria.

You can use our letter-writing template to send an email to your MP.

3. Donate to help families in need of emergency food  

Caritas Australia’s partners in the Horn of Africa are working around-the-clock to bring emergency food aid to communities on the brink of famine. With little access to water and food, this urgent relief is essential. Your donation today can help save lives. 

donate now 

 

The funds raised through this appeal will be used to provide immediate and longer-term humanitarian assistance to communities affected by the food crisis in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mozambique and Eritrea, through Caritas Australia’s local partners.

Where this is not possible, the funds will be used to provide immediate and longer-term development and humanitarian assistance to communities affected by crises in Africa. If any excess funds remain after a crisis, or if there are changes in circumstances beyond our control that limit our ability to use the funds, they are kept in the Africa Regional Appeal so that we can respond to ongoing development needs and future crises across all our regions.