War in Ukraine compounds hunger in East Africa

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First came the drought, drying up rivers and claiming the lives of two of Ruqiya Hussein Ahmed’s children as her family fled the barren countryside in southwest Somalia.

Then came the war in Ukraine, pushing food prices so high that even after making it to the outskirts of the capital, Mogadishu, she is struggling to keep her two other children alive.

“Even here, we have nothing,” she said.

Across 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 harvests have hit their lowest in decades, malnourished children are filling hospitals, and many families are walking long distances to find help.

The devastating drought has blanketed most of Somalia, leaving nearly one-third of the population hungry. In neighbouring Kenya, the drought has left more than 3 million people short of food and killed more than 1.5 million livestock.

And in Ethiopia, where a civil war has impeded aid delivery into the northern Tigray region, food insecurity is more widespread than at any time in the last six years. The first food aid to Tigray in three months arrived on Friday.

Now the war in Ukraine is making the crisis even worse by raising the price of grains, fuel and fertiliser.

Russia and Ukraine are some of the region’s top suppliers of agricultural commodities 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 depends on them entirely for its wheat imports.

“The conflict in Ukraine is compounding an already complicated situation in East Africa,” said Gabriela Bucher, executive director for the charity organisation Oxfam International. “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 the war in Ukraine are compounded 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 food staples. The locust infestation in Kenya, the civil war in Ethiopia, extreme flooding in South Sudan, the political crises and growing terrorist attacks in Somalia, and the intensifying ethnic conflict in Sudan have all contributed to the destruction of farms, the depletion of harvests and a worsening food crisis, aid groups say.

The war in Ukraine, which is in 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, regional director for Africa at Mercy Corps, a non-governmental organisation.

“Meeting the basic needs of vulnerable, drought-affected populations will become more expensive and challenging,” he said.

That ominous outcome is already evident in many parts of the region.

In Somalia, the price of a 20-litre container of cooking oil has increased to $55 from $32, while 25 kilogrammes of beans now go for $28 instead of $18, according to data gathered by Mercy Corps.

In Sudan, the price of bread has nearly doubled, and some bakeries have closed because wheat imports have dropped 60 per cent since the beginning of the war, according to Elsadig Elnour, the Sudan country director for the charity organisation Islamic Relief.

Kenya, citing the war in Ukraine, also raised the price of fuel, leading to protests in parts of the country.

When famine hits, children are particularly vulnerable. An estimated 5.5 million children in the region are facing high levels of malnutrition from the drought, according to World Vision, a Christian aid organisation.

“My children died of hunger. They suffered,” said Ahmed, whose children, ages 3 and 4, died during her daylong trek from her home in Adde Ali village 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 squeezing household budgets as the holy month of Ramadhan approaches.

With no job, proper shelter or access to the beans, maize and tomatoes he once farmed, Ahmed now relies on food donations from well-wishers to feed her two surviving children, ages 7 and 9.

And aid programmes are stretched thin. The war has affected the operations of the World Food Programme, which last month said it had reduced rations for refugees and others in East Africa and the Middle East because of rising costs and depleting funds.

Some fear that the continued drought in East Africa could come to resemble the one in 2011, which killed about 260,000 people in Somalia alone. While the situation has not reached that level yet, the funding and resources needed to avert such a crisis have not yet begun to flow, Bucher of Oxfam said.

Just 3 per cent of the $6 billion the UN needs this year for Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan has been allocated, she said, while Kenya has only secured 11 per cent of the $139 million needed for assistance.

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, Bucher said it was imperative that donors also give unsparingly and immediately to avert a much wider crisis.

“The world needs to come to the rescue of East Africa to avert a catastrophe,” she said. – The New York Times