NAIROBI, Kenya — First came drought, drying up rivers and claiming the lives of two children of Ruqiya Hussein Ahmed as her family fled the arid countryside of southwestern Somalia.
Then came the war in Ukraine, pushing food prices so high that even after reaching the outskirts of the capital Mogadishu, she struggles to keep her two other children alive.
“Even here we have nothing,” she said.
In East Africa, below-average rainfall has created some of the driest conditions in four decades, according to the United Nations, leaving more than 13 million people facing severe hunger. Seasonal crops have hit their lowest point in decades, malnourished children fill hospitals and many families walk long distances to find help.
The devastating drought has covered most of Somalia, leaving nearly a third of the population starving. In neighboring Kenya, the drought has left more than three million people short of food and killed more than 1.5 million livestock.
And in Ethiopia, where civil war has hampered relief efforts to the northern region of Tigray, food insecurity is greater than at any time in the past six years. The first food aid to Tigray arrived in three months on Friday.
Now the war in Ukraine is exacerbating the crisis by raising the price of grains, fuel and fertilizers.
Russia and Ukraine are some of the major suppliers of agricultural commodities in the region, such as wheat, soybeans and barley. At least 14 African countries import half of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Eritrea is completely dependent on them for its wheat imports.
“The conflict in Ukraine is exacerbating an already complicated situation in East Africa,” Gabriela Bucher, the executive director of the charity Oxfam International, said in a telephone interview. “East Africa is not on the global agenda now, but the region needs the solidarity of the international community and it needs it now.”
The devastating drought and war in Ukraine are exacerbated by a series of crises over the past two years.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted food supply chains and forced many families to pay higher prices for staple foods. The locust plague in Kenya, the civil war in Ethiopia, extreme flooding in South Sudan, the political crises and increasing terrorist attacks in Somalia, and the growing ethnic conflict in Sudan have all contributed to the destruction of farms, crop depletion and aggravation of the food crisis, aid organizations say.
The war in Ukraine, entering its second month, is expected to cause further spikes in food costs across the region. The conflict, depending on how long it lasts, could reduce “the quantity and quality” of staples like wheat, said Sean Granville-Ross, the regional director for Africa at Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization.
Meeting the basic needs of vulnerable, drought-affected populations will become more expensive and challenging,” he said.
That ominous result is already visible in many parts of the region.
In Somalia, the price of a 20-gallon container of cooking oil has risen from $32 from $55 to $55, while 25 kilograms of beans now cost $28 instead of $18, according to data collected by Mercy Corps.
In Sudan, the price of bread has nearly doubled and some bakeries have closed as wheat imports have fallen by 60 percent since the start of the war, according to Elsadig Elnour, Sudan’s country director for the charity Islamic Relief.
Kenya, referring to the war in Ukraine, too increased the fuel priceleading to protests in parts of the country.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
To the ground. Ukrainian helicopters entered Russian territory and fired at an oil depot in the city of Belgorod, according to a Russian regional governor. The airstrike would be the first time Russia has reported a Ukrainian airstrike within its borders since the start of the war.
When famine strikes, children are especially vulnerable. According to World Vision, a Christian aid agency, an estimated 5.5 million children in the region are suffering from high levels of malnutrition due to the drought.
“My children died of starvation. They have suffered,” said Ms. Ahmed, whose children, aged 3 and 4, died during her day-long trek from her home in the village of Adde Ali in the Lower Shabelle region to the outskirts of Mogadishu. “They died under a tree.”
In Mogadishu, families are already feeling the ripple effects of the war in Ukraine, with rising food prices straining household budgets as the holy month of Ramadan approaches. With no job, proper shelter or access to the beans, corn and tomatoes she once grew, Ms. Ahmed now relies on food donations from benefactors to feed her two surviving children, ages 7 and 9.
And utilities are stretched thin. The war has impacted the activities of the World Food Program, which this month said it had cut rations for refugees and others in East Africa and the Middle East amid rising costs and depleted funds.
Some fear that the ongoing drought in East Africa will resemble that of 2011, which killed about 260,000 people in Somalia alone. While the situation has not yet reached that level, the funding and resources needed to avert such a crisis have not yet started to flow, Oxfam’s Ms Bucher said.
Only 3 percent of the $6 billion the UN needs this year for Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan has been allocated, she said, while Kenya has received just 11 percent of the $139 million needed for aid.
Last week, the African Development Bank said it would raise up to $1 billion to improve agricultural production and help Africans become self-sufficient in food in the long run. But while these initiatives are welcome, Ms Bucher said it was imperative that donors also give relentlessly and immediately to avert a much broader crisis.
“The world must come to the rescue of East Africa to prevent a catastrophe,” she said.
Hussein Mohamed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia.