NAIROBI, KENYA, March 7, 2019—Millions of people in the Horn of Africa have been suffering through a prolonged drought at the same time that the administration’s expected federal budget proposal could threaten lifesaving U.S. food aid.
Newly released data from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSN) predicts worsening drought and severe hunger in parts of the Horn of Africa in coming months, and crop failures of up to 30 percent.
“We’re very concerned by the deteriorating conditions in the region where we are seeing families – whose lives rely on the land – unable to cope,” said Matt Davis, Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) regional director for East Africa, who oversees humanitarian assistance in the affected countries, including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya.
The news comes on the eve of the U.S. administration’s annual federal budget request, which is expected to include deep cuts to foreign aid – up to a third as in the past two years – including major emergency food assistance programs.
“We are concerned the administration’s budget could abandon millions of families around the world just when they need help the most,” Davis said. “Helping the poor is a moral imperative, and a wise investment in global stability.”
The administration is expected to release its fiscal year 2020 budget as early as Monday, March 11. Congressional hearings have already begun on some of the budget accounts.
Climate change is having dramatic impacts on crop production in some of the poorest areas of the world. According to reports, the number of extreme climate-related disasters, including severe heat, droughts, floods and storms, has doubled since 1990. These disasters cause crop failures that have tragic consequences for rural families that subsist on what they grow.
Nowhere is this truer than in the Horn of Africa, where up to 80 percent of the population are small-holder farmers.
According to FEWSN, drought has already set back what improvements were made in the region since the 2016 drought. To make matters worse, rainfall from October to December of last year was 55 percent less than normal in some parts of the Horn. As a result, widespread hunger is expected to increase further in the next few months. Much of the livestock – which many families depend on for a living – has already died off, been sold, or eaten.
In South Sudan, 7.7 million people – more than half the population – will need food assistance by August. That crisis has been caused by both conflict and drought.
“This is a part of the world where the majority of families survive on what food they are able to grow. So even the smallest shifts in weather can leave these families with nothing,” Davis said.
“These and other climate- and conflict-related disasters are increasing the need for humanitarian assistance. The good news is, humanitarian relief is for now preventing worse outcomes in many parts of the Horn of Africa, but more is needed to make sure this crisis doesn’t turn into a catastrophe.”
In the previous federal budget, however, the administration proposed elimination of the $1.7 billion Food for Peace program. Other food and international assistance programs were slashed. Congress ultimately rejected the draconian cuts.
“Working through local churches and other groups, we can put specialized technology in the hands of farmers to help them predict the impact of droughts. Our local partners also can help rural areas to prepare ahead of time to become more resilient. But sometimes conditions become so extreme families need emergency food to help get them through. If the administration again proposes to axe those programs, millions of vulnerable people around the world could suffer,” Davis said.
CRS, in partnership with the Ethiopian government, the U.S. government’s USAID Office of Food for Peace, international and local partners, and other groups, provides monthly emergency food distributions to 1.5 million people in four regions in Ethiopia. An additional 640,000 people displaced by social unrest also receive food assistance.
"We have invested in disaster preparedness programs for vulnerable communities, those hurt by drought, but also floods, typhoons, and other extreme weather,” Davis said. Supported by U.S. foreign aid, CRS helps communities to become more resilient through micro-savings programs and health and nutrition education.