Africa drought: Some children just ‘one disease away from catastrophe’ UNICEF warns

A mother-of-six fears she will lose more livestock in the coming months due to drought in Somali region, Ethiopia.
© UNICEF/Mulugaeta Ayene
A mother-of-six fears she will lose more livestock in the coming months due to drought in Somali region, Ethiopia.

Africa drought: Some children just ‘one disease away from catastrophe’ UNICEF warns

Humanitarian Aid

On Tuesday, UN Children’s Fund UNICEF warned that children in the Horn of Africa and the vast Sahel region “could die in devastating numbers” without urgent intervention and support. In the last five months, the number of people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia without reliable access to safe water, has risen from 9.5 million to 16.2 million

Children in Sahel are also facing water insecurity. This crisis has led to the proliferation of severe malnutrition and increased the risk of serious water-borne diseases.

Risks multiply

When water either isn’t available or is unsafe, the risks to children multiply exponentially,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Across the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, millions of children are just one disease away from catastrophe.”

In Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, drought, conflict and insecurity are driving the water insecurity problem, as World Water Week gets underway, in the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

According to WHO data, 40 million children are facing high to extremely high levels of water vulnerability. Already more children die as a result of unsafe water and sanitation in the Sahel than in any other part of the world. This will only be heightened by the nascent crisis, said UNICEF.

Worst hit

Most people in the Horn of Africa rely on water delivered by vendors on trucks or donkey carts. In areas worst hit by drought, water is no longer affordable for many families, said UNICEF:

  • In Kenya, 23 counties have seen significant price hikes topped by Mandera at a 400 per cent increase, and Garissa at 260 per cent, compared to January 2021 figures. 
  • In Ethiopia, the cost of water in June this year has doubled in the Oromia region, and 50 per cent in Somali, compared to the onset of the drought in October 2021.  
  • In Somalia, average water prices climbed 85 per cent in South-Mudug, and 55 and 75 per cent respectively in Buurhakaba and Ceel Berde, compared to prices in January this year.

Furthermore, in Kenya, over 90 per cent of open water sources – such as ponds and open wells - in drought-affected areas, are either depleted or dried up, posing serious risk of disease outbreak.

A young girl operates a hand pump near a sand dam in Turkana County, Kenya.
© UNICEF
A young girl operates a hand pump near a sand dam in Turkana County, Kenya.

Drying up

Across the Sahel, water availability has also dropped by more than 40 per cent in the last 20 years. This drastic decline in water resources is largely due to climate change and complex factors such as destructive conflict patterns.

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The effect of this insecurity also facilitated the region's worst cholera outbreak in the last six years, leading to 5,610 cases and 170 deaths in Central Sahel.  

Specifically, in Somalia, outbreaks of acute watery diarrhoea and cholera have been reported in almost all drought-affected districts. 8,200 cases were reported between January and June 2022, more than double the number of cases reported during the same period last year.

In a region already burdened with 2.8 million malnourished children, water vulnerability makes children 11 times more likely to die from water-borne diseases than those who are well nourished, said UNICEF.

Almost two-thirds of these affected are children under the age of five. Between June 2021 and June 2022, UNICEF and partners treated more than 1.2 million cases of diarrhoea in children under the age of five in the worst drought-hit regions of Ethiopia’s Afar, Somalia, SNNP and Oromia.

Life-saving aid

To combat this crisis, UNICEF is providing life-saving aid and resilient services to children and their families in dire need across the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

Schemes include improving access to climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene services; drilling for reliable sources of groundwater and developing the use of solar systems; identifying and treating children with malnutrition, and scaling up prevention services.

UNICEF’s appeal to improve families’ long-term resilience in the Horn of Africa region – and stop drought devastating lives for years to come – is currently just three per cent funded.

Of that, almost no money has been received for the section devoted to water, sanitation and climate resilience. The appeal for the Central Sahel region to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families with water, sanitation, and hygiene programmes is only 22 per cent funded.

A woman walks to a water kiosk with her two-year-old son in Garissa County, Kenya.
© UNICEF/Lamek Orina
A woman walks to a water kiosk with her two-year-old son in Garissa County, Kenya.

‘Impossible choices’

Ms. Russell, at the beginning of this year’s World Water Week, appealed for better funding: “Families across drought-impacted regions are being forced into impossible choices. The only way to stop this crisis is for governments, donors, and the international community to step up funding to meet children’s most acute needs and provide long-term flexible support to break the cycle of crisis.”