Show Hide image

The world’s next crisis: drought and famine in the Horn of Africa

There are warnings that the humanitarian caseload could exceed the Syrian crisis.

The scale of the drought now gripping the Horn of Africa is only beginning to be grasped.

While the BBC and some other media outlets have given it some coverage, this has only really touched the surface of the problem. Most quote a figure of 10 million Ethiopians requiring food aid. This is the number provided by the Ethiopian government, but looks wide of the mark.

The authoritative Famine Early Warning system has been using a figure of 15 million since early December. The organisation described Ethiopia as “the country with the largest acutely food insecure population in the world”. It concludes that: “Already, significant populations in northern Somali region and southern Afar are in Emergency (IPC Phase 4), meaning that they are unable to access adequate food for survival and face an increased risk of malnutrition and mortality.”

This is just one step away from famine, yet these warnings cover only Ethiopia. There is every indication that the situation in neighbouring Eritrea (as well as tiny Djibouti) is just as severe.   

The difference is this: the Ethiopian authorities have had the courage to call for help. The Eritrean government has not.

All that is definitively known about the Eritrean crisis is that the rains have failed. This map shows the drought extending from northern Ethiopia deep into Eritrea’s highlands and western lowlands.

With large parts of Eritrea’s most productive farms receiving less than 20 per cent of the average rainfall, there is little chance of much of a harvest.

Although this is well understood by aid officials and the UN they are silent about what is unfolding. Maps indicating the needs of the populations are blank north of the Ethiopian border.

There is a good reason for this. The Eritrean government has clamped down on all independent sources of information.

In 2005 the Eritrean government began demanding that taxes be paid on aid imported into the country to help the Eritrean people. Aid agencies objected, and when they refused to pay six Italian agencies were asked to leave. They were followed by Irish Concern, ACCORD and the US-based mercy mission. Today, even the UN has its operations severely curtailed.

Until the Eritrean government admits the scale of the crisis there is little that the international community can do. And since no independent media – national or international – are based inside the country, no one is sounding the alarm.

The British government has come closest to describing the situation. In December development minister Nick Hurd revealed in a written answer that: “Official food security and nutrition data for Eritrea for this year has not yet been released, but the late onset of rains, relatively low volume of rainfall, and significant soil moisture deficits are likely to have had a negative impact on both farming and pastoral communities.”

Why is drought leading to famine?

Even though Ethiopia has called for help, some suggest a crisis is unlikely to be avoided.

The veteran French journalist, Rene Lefort, points out that the port of Djibouti, through which most foreign grain must flow, is unlikely to be able to handle the volumes. “It manages usually around 500,000 tons per month. Can it deal with an additional 2 million tons, and with what kinds of delay?”  

The tragedy is that Ethiopia’s natural gateways to the sea, the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa, have lain idle since the border war between the two countries (1998 – 2000).  The frontier is closed, disrupting ancient trade routes that have served these communities well.

There is another – unspoken – issue: population. 

Ethiopia’s “biblical” famines of 1973 – 74 and 1984 – 85 left hundreds of thousands dead, probably around 200,000 and 400,000 respectively. The first resulted in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie; the second contributed to the end of the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Since the first of these tragedies, the population of Ethiopia has quadrupled – from around 26 million in 1973 to around 100 million today. Highland farms (tiny patches of land, eroded by decades of intensive agriculture and subdivided down the generations) can barely feed a family in the best of times. Many still use wooden ploughs, pulled by a single donkey or an ox.

Even in normal years some 7 or 8 million Ethiopians require international food aid to survive. This is euphemistically known as the government’s “Productive Safety Net Program”. Every year this programme is underwritten by Ethiopia’s major ally – the United States – at an annual cost of $100m.

This year el-Nino and the drought it has brought has exacerbated the situation. But these droughts are cyclical and it was inevitable that another drought of this magnitude would return to the region. It was only a matter of time.

For Ethiopia, the picture is not entirely negative. The country has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years – in excess of 8 per cent a year for the past decade. The authorities have greater resources to draw upon. And Ethiopia recently signed a border agreement with Kenya that could allow increased freight to be brought in by road.

But no one should underestimate the impact of the drought and the looming threat of famine. There are warnings that the humanitarian caseload could exceed the Syrian crisis. These are desperate times as millions across the Horn of Africa hope for rain and eke out a living until the next harvest arrives.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

Show Hide image

Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at