Horn of Africa: “The region is facing an unprecedented disaster”

Interview with Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s Resilience Team Leader for East Africa

© UN Photo / Fardosa Hussein

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) seen outside their makeshift shelters at the Raama Cadeey IDP camp in Baidoa, Somalia.

©UN Photo / Fardosa Hussein


Rome – The Horn of Africa is prone to natural shocks and hazards. The region has faced three severe drought phenomena in the last 12 years. Now, after five consecutive below average rainfall seasons, the region was back to its normal pattern during the long rains this year from a precipitation standpoint. However, floods are of great concern in the upcoming months. The combined effect of the long-lasting impacts of drought and the current floods continues to devastate people’s lives and livelihoods. In this interview, Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s Resilience Team Leader for East Africa, assesses the current situation and talks about how interventions must be scaled up amid growing global concerns. 

Q1: The drought in the Horn of Africa has been described as the most severe and protracted drought in decades. Can you explain the impacts it has had on rural communities' lives and livelihoods?

CF: Indeed, the region is facing an unprecedented disaster. We are talking about almost three years or five seasons of drought in the Horn of Africa that devastated rural livelihoods across part of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia and to a lesser extent Djibouti.

Many farming households have experienced several consecutive poor harvests and up to 100 percent losses especially in the arid and semi-arid areas. Some agropastoral communities lost all sources of food and income. The deficit in crop production combined with high food prices that were partially attributed to the conflict in Ukraine has exacerbated the food insecurity situation for tens of millions of people.

In addition, 2.3 million people have been displaced across the region in search of basic services, water and food. And we know very well that when people are on the move, it is also an issue of security, violence, and gender-based violence, in particular. In short, the drought triggered a livelihood crisis that has grown into a multifaceted humanitarian disaster including displacement, health issues, malnutrition and security crisis that has long-term effects on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Q2: The drought has led to the death of 13.2 million livestock in the region, a primary source of livelihood, income and nutrition for pastoralist communities. What is FAO doing to protect livestock and mitigate losses?

CF: In time of drought, pastoral communities are the most affected people. Between late 2020 and the end of 2022, pastoralists lost over 13 million livestock across the region due to lack of water and feed. We are talking about cattle, small ruminants, goats, sheep but also camels. It is important to understand that livestock are not only the source of income for people who can sell animals, but it is also the main source of milk which is vital for healthy diets especially of children under five. The milk deficit generated by the loss of animals accounts for up to 330 000 litres of milk per day. This would have been enough to provide milk to 1.5 million children under five every day since the beginning of the drought.

The high rate of malnutrition that we observed in the region is largely linked to the deficit in milk production and the loss of animals.

To address the issue, we did some reprogramming from the existing resilience projects that allowed us to save a number of animals that were productive. Interventions included providing feed and water for these animals. For example, in Somalia to address water scarcity we rehabilitated water pans, which are basically huge water reservoirs that are being filled with water during the rainy season and may extend the availability of water for livestock during the dry season for a couple of months.

Q3: Hunger and food insecurity are major concerns with tens of millions of people experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity. In what ways is FAO addressing these challenges?

CF: Indeed, tens of millions of people are facing high levels of acute food insecurity primarily due to the drought in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

When we faced the first below average rainy season in late 2020, we immediately alerted the international community. We have a very efficient early warning system in place. But an early warning system is not enough. Before a drought becomes a multifaceted humanitarian crisis it is first and foremost a livelihood crisis, and anticipatory action that protects livelihoods is the right approach. Unfortunately, resources that were made available at the very onset of the drought cycle were very limited.

In the last six months of 2021, we started receiving funding, which enabled us to implement some interventions aiming at saving the most productive and core breeding animals. As the crisis deepened at the beginning of 2022, we launched a regional drought response appeal with a clear objective of preventing famine which was successful. It was a joint effort with all the humanitarian actors including OCHA, WFP, UNICEF, IOM and UNHCR.

At first, we looked into the epicentres of the multifaceted crisis, did a geographic prioritization to support the areas that were facing water deficit, acute food insecurity, high level of malnutrition, and the risk of losing livestock and crops altogether. That is where we concentrated the bulk of our effort with tight resources.

In 2022, FAO received $120 million, which was about 50 to 55 percent of the funding needs. With these funds, we largely focused on supporting pastoral and agropastoral communities that were hardest hit by the disaster.  

Q4: The region has been experiencing heavy rainfall recently, which has led to flash floods in areas already impacted by the drought. Can you describe how these contrasting weather patterns, and the impending El Niño, complicate the humanitarian situation?

CF: The greater Horn of Africa or the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) region is prone to natural shocks and hazards. For example, we had an unprecedented level of cyclones in 2019, and an off-season excess moisture triggered by cyclones led to the desert locust upsurge. At the same time, we saw three severe drought phenomena in 12 years.

After five consecutive below average rainfall seasons, the long rains from March to May 2023 have been normal. However, floods are of concern at the moment. The long-term drought made soil less absorbent, rainwater does not percolate very easily through the ground. And that is also part of the reason why we have floods. We continue to monitor the situation while mapping flood prone areas to provide assistance to farmers to preserve crops.

Looking at the short rains from October to December 2023, there is an increasing probability of El Niño to form, which means excess rains and floods in the region towards the end of this year. However, we should make it clear. Resuming of rain does not mean that people will recover very quickly. For pastoral communities who still have remaining livestock assets, it will take a couple of years to recover. Those who have lost all their assets and were forced to move from rural areas to urban centres very rarely resume pastoral activities. These people need assistance and social safety nets and ultimately to change entirely their livelihoods.

Q5: There is a critical need to invest in livelihoods, resilience and climate adaptation in the region. Can you give some examples of what FAO is doing in this space and what more needs to be done ahead of the next climatic extreme/drought?

CF: The climate adaptation and resilience building agenda is very much at the heart of FAO’s mandate and what we are doing in the field. More specifically, it means reinforcing the resilience of communities and individuals, as well as reinforcing agrifood systems to shocks, including extreme weather events and conflicts in the region.

For instance, in Somalia we have targeted investments to support pastoral livelihoods. We are working on improving the feed sector to make sure that we have feed reserves and diversification of feed sources that are not only rainfed but can also be attached to irrigation potentially. We also focus our efforts on animal health protection because healthy animals are more resistant to shocks and diseases and therefore can keep producing milk.

Another important factor in resilience building that can be a game-changer is reducing post-harvest losses. At the moment, the region is losing around 4 000 000 tonnes of cereals per year. It is enough food to feed around 30 million people. This is quite significant. We have witnessed how the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine disrupted food supply globally. Producing more food locally will reduce region’s dependency on food imports.

Furthermore, food assistance in the region is in the range of $2 to $2.5 billion per year. Investing the same amount of money in grain silos and post-harvest losses management would allow farmers to close the gap on their food requirement. We would be able to significantly reduce the burden on humanitarian and food assistance with a long-lasting effect if we invested more in post-harvest losses reduction.

We are also looking into improvements in the feed and water sectors which requires efficient government policies, private and public sector investment and an enabling environment as well as a public private partnership type of framework.

In addition, we are also trying to find durable solution for displaced people in terms of livelihood diversification, economic inclusion, employment to make sure that they are reintegrating in the productive sectors.

These are the key areas that we are focusing on until the next drought strikes. What we are looking at now is how to bring the wealth of interventions together in order to have a cumulative effect at scale across the region. 


Irina Utkina FAO News and Media (Rome) +39657052542 [email protected]

FAO News and Media (+39) 06 570 53625 [email protected]