In the Horn of Africa, a climate-fueled food catastrophe looms.


This story was originally published by Inside Climate News and was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In Torchia, Kenya, if there’s a ring around the sun, it will rain. If the gude bird sings in descending notes, the skies will open. If vultures gather, the showers will begin. Everyone reads the signs, but they don’t mean what they used to. It’s still not raining.

Jala Barako is 85, a grandfather of eight and a member of an ancient nomadic tribe. Today, wearing a pinstriped jacket, dark glasses, and a turban-like hat, he looks like the proprietor of a progressive jazz club. He sits outside a metal-walled shed that serves as the village store — the place where people come to buy provisions before heading out into this Martian-rocked landscape with their livestock to find pasture again. For generations, Barako explains, his people have slaughtered goats to read the weather forecast spelled out in their wet entrails. Now the readings are all off.

“The climate is changing,” he says, with a fatalistic laugh. “Even in the intestines.”

Consistent, gentle showers over days and weeks replenish the shrubs and grasses that livestock depend on here. But it hasn’t rained steadily for two, going-on-three years, and there’s nothing green in sight.

The government has drilled boreholes, but there aren’t enough of them. Herders have to travel long distances to reach the water and then equally long distances to find any remaining pasture. Where there’s water, there’s no pasture and where there’s even the scantest bit of uneaten pasture left, there’s no water. On the trek between one place and the other, animals crumple from exhaustion and die.

“We depend on livestock, and the ones that haven’t died are so weak,” Barako says. “In normal times, they support us. Now we support them.”

Livestock here are the primary source of income and nourishment. When they die, the people come next.

Near the village shop, relief workers from a local aid group called PACIDA distribute corn, beans, cooking oil, salt, and sugar. A water truck is scheduled to come soon, too, but international aid has lapsed, so it will be the last for a long time.

“Even with this they won’t get a meal every day,” says Adano Salesa, a program officer with the group who is in charge of distributing the food to each eligible person. Only the most vulnerable get a share.

“If there is no more help,” he says, methodically consulting a checklist, “people will die.”

Nearly 26 million people in the Horn of Africa are facing extreme hunger, with some areas already reaching catastrophic famine levels, according to the United Nations. The situation here is unfolding as a food crisis threatens a record number of people around the world, with nearly 345 million at acute levels of hunger and nearly 50 million people on the brink of famin

“We are on the way to a raging food catastrophe,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres tweeted recently.

This year’s droughts and severe weather diminished or decimated crops across the world — in parts of the United States, Europe, China, Australia, and the Indian subcontinent.

The current emergency foreshadows what researchers call “multiple breadbasket” failures, which will likely occur more often and with greater intensity as Earth’s atmosphere warms. Battered by more climate-induced weather shocks or chronic conditions like drought, the world’s farmers are projected to produce less food in coming decades as the global population rises toward 10 billion.

“There are other drivers of food insecurity,” said Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO. “But those related to climate change will increase and become more and more important.”

For decades, researchers have warned of the impacts, mostly negative, that climate change will have on the world’s staple crops. But the recent spike in hunger and famine are revealing the instability of a global food system that is ill prepared for shocks, whether from war, pandemics, severe storms, or drought.

“It’s hard to look at the global agri-food system right now and say this is working,” said William Boyd, a professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Putting climate disruptions on top of it just creates more stress.”

The global food supply is dependent on four major grains and vast quantities of fertilizer. Much of this is controlled by a handful of corporations and exported by a few countries that dominate production. Over decades, the movement of these grains and fertilizers across borders has created a vast globalized trade network in which many countries are dependent on a few. Grain traders, shippers, and speculators in this interconnected food economy often make big profits off disruptions in the market, driving up prices and putting food out of reach for millions of the world’s poor.

“There’s a concentration of crops, a concentration of countries, and a concentration of companies,” said Jennifer Clapp, vice chair of the High Level Panel of Experts for the U.N. Committee on Food Security. “And then there’s the fourth C in this equation, climate. With climate change we’re much more likely to see uncertainties and disruptions. If anything happens to one of those crops — a global blight — or any of those countries has a disaster, it can make the global markets go crazy, and that creates high prices.”

The price spikes don’t just affect individuals. The U.N.’s World Food Program, or WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian organization, is facing major shortfalls, with only about half of the money it needs to get food to millions of hungry and dying people. The prices the organization pays for food have risen from 30 to 50 percent since the beginning of the year. The cascading effects of climate-related disasters are exposing an already strained humanitarian system that is unprepared to handle repeated or simultaneous disasters.

“These countries in the Horn of Africa may seem isolated, but from a food perspective, they’re part of a global food system,” said Lifeng Li, director of the land and water division at the FAO. “The challenge they’re facing is the challenge we’re all facing. It could happen to us.”

Some experts believe what’s happening in the region could become the worst humanitarian disaster in a generation — despite all the improvements in early warning systems, the awareness-raising global rock concerts of the 1980s, and the “lessons learned” from the famines of recent history.

“With climate change, the system is at a breaking point,” said Gernot Laganda, who leads climate and disaster risk reduction efforts at the WFP.

A frame of bones, too big to be a donkey or cow: a camel carcass, its orange-white ribs poking out of the sand after weeks in the sun.

As the two-lane A3 road leads northeast out of Nairobi, the city thins out into squat concrete apartment buildings and megachurches, then pineapple farms and mango groves. Like most highways, it’s lined with motoring essentials: gas stations for refueling and quick-stop restaurants for truck operators.

But as it heads into the arid north, the highway is as much a conduit for water as an artery for fossil fuels.

On both sides of the road, donkeys’ backs are piled high with sun-bleached jugs, each filled with 20 liters of water. They carry the jugs along brick-red dirt paths that line the highway on both sides, in an endless slog to retrieve water from one place and bring it to another.

Where the Tyaa River intersects with the highway, there’s a meandering beach—a winding course of sand that should be filled with water at this time of year. Instead, the heads of workers pop up from the riverbed and disappear again into holes dug deep enough to reach the water table.

“Since the rains have failed, the river has disappeared, and it’s difficult to fill the containers,” said Abel Chalo as he ladled water from a shallow pool of water the size of a serving platter. “We used to draw 200 liters. Now it’s not even possible to draw 50 in a day.”

The arid and semi-arid lands, or ASALs, of Kenya begin roughly in the country’s midsection and stretch north past its borders into Somalia, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. The green highlands of Nairobi, with their electric purple flashes of jacaranda trees and lush gardens, feel like another planet.

The red earth here turns into an endless stretch of dun, with thorny needled shrubs and flat-topped acacias that seemingly stopped growing upward, resigning themselves to the wind over thousands of years. There are fewer and fewer donkeys as the road stretches north.

Emerging from a brambly brush at the side of the road, Halima Ismael and her mother-in-law carry yellow water jugs and rolled blankets for their trek to a faraway watering hole. “We used to use donkeys to get the water, but the donkeys have all died,” Ismael says. “We’re going for the water ourselves.”

Farther north, camel caravans start appearing at the roadside as they travel to points for their weekly watering. And then odd shapes also begin to appear.

A frame of bones, too big to be a donkey or cow: a camel carcass, its orange-white ribs poking out of the sand after weeks in the sun. Down the road, another camel that recently collapsed, an eye pecked out by birds already, with fresh blood still pooling in the socket.

In Marsabit County, to the west, a sandy track crosses a maroon rockscape that meets the horizon in every direction. Empty plastic bottles glint under the sun. Mere yards separate one pile of camel bones from the next.

“If the camels die, that’s the end of everything,” said Patrick Katelo, PACIDA’s director. “Even these animals cannot make it now.”

Thousands of miles from the Tyaa River, in a Mussolini-era building in Rome, FAO’s Li spends his workdays pushing for countries and governments to take water more seriously. He notes the absence of ministries of water in any country he can think of.

“Food is water,” he says. “Ninety five percent of the food we eat is produced on land. Water is the media where we’ll feel the impact of climate change.

“Sure, there will be heat waves. But there will be too much water. Too little water. Water at the wrong time. Water in the wrong place.” He points to recent flooding in Pakistan and to a drought in Italy itself that forced the government to declare a state of emergency over the summer.

“It has to be a priority,” Li says.


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