The war in Ukraine increases hunger in East Africa

NAIROBI, Kenya — First came the drought, which dried up rivers and claimed the lives of two children of Ruqiya Hussein Ahmed as her family fled the arid landscape of southwestern Somalia.

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

“We don’t have anything here either,” she said.

Across East Africa, below-average rainfall has resulted in some of the driest conditions in four decades, putting more than 13 million people at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations. Seasonal harvests have fallen to their lowest levels in decades, malnourished children fill hospitals and many families have to travel long distances to find help.

The devastating drought has engulfed most of Somalia, leaving almost a third of the population starving. In neighboring Kenya, the drought has left more than three million people without food and more than 1.5 million livestock dead.

And in Ethiopia, where civil war is hampering the flow of aid to the northern Tigray region, food insecurity is at its highest level in the last six years. The first Food aid for Tigray arrived in three months on Friday.

Now the war in Ukraine is exacerbating the crisis by raising grain, fuel and fertilizer prices.

Russia and Ukraine are among the region’s most important suppliers of agricultural commodities such as wheat, soybeans and barley. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, at least 14 African countries import half of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Eritrea depends entirely on them for its wheat imports.

“The conflict in Ukraine is exacerbating an already complicated situation in East Africa,” Gabriela Bucher, executive director of the charity Oxfam International, said in a telephone interview. “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 war in Ukraine have been compounded by a series of crises over the past two years.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted food supply chains, forcing many families to pay higher prices for basic necessities. The locust plague in Kenya, the civil war in Ethiopia, extreme flooding in South Sudan, the political crises and escalating terrorist attacks in Somalia, and the deepening ethnic conflict in Sudan have all contributed to the destruction of farms, the loss of crops and a worsening food crisis, aid groups say.

The war in Ukraine, now in its second month, is expected to further push up food costs across the region. The conflict could, depending on how long it lasts, reduce “the quantity and quality” of staple crops like wheat, said Sean Granville-Ross, regional director for Africa at Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization.

“Meeting the basic needs of vulnerable, drought-affected populations is becoming more expensive and difficult,” he said.

This ominous result is already visible in many parts of the region.

In Somalia, the price of a 20-liter container of cooking oil has risen from $32 to $55, while 25 kilograms of beans are now $28 from $18, according to data collected by Mercy Corps.

In Sudan, the price of bread has nearly doubled and some bakeries have closed because wheat imports have fallen by 60 percent since the war began, according to Elsadig Elnour, the Sudanese country director of the charity Islamic Relief.

Kenya, too, citing the war in Ukraine increases the price of fuelleading to protests in parts of the country.

In a famine, children are particularly vulnerable. According to World Vision, a Christian charity, an estimated 5.5 million children in the region are severely malnourished as a result of the drought.

“My children died of hunger. They suffered,” said Ms Ahmed, whose children, aged 3 and 4, died during their day-long trek from their 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 effects of the war in Ukraine, as rising food prices strain household budgets as the holy month of Ramadan approaches. With no job, decent housing or access to the beans, corn and tomatoes she once grew, Ms Ahmed now depends on food donations from well-wishers to support her two surviving children, aged 7 and 9.

And utility programs are sparsely saturated. The war has hampered operations at the World Food Program, which said this month it has cut rations for refugees and others in East Africa and the Middle East because of rising costs and depleted funds.

Some fear the ongoing drought in East Africa could be similar to that of 2011, which killed about 260,000 people in Somalia alone. Although the situation has not yet reached that level, the funds and resources needed to avert such a crisis have not yet started to flow, Oxfam’s Ms Bucher said.

Only 3 percent of the $6 billion the UN needs for Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan this year has been provided, she said, while Kenya needed just 11 percent of the $139 million in aid.

Last week, the African Development Bank said it would raise up to $1 billion to improve agricultural production and help Africans become food self-sufficient in the long term. But while these initiatives are welcome, Ms Bucher said it’s imperative donors also donate ruthlessly and immediately to avert a much bigger crisis.

“The world must come to the aid of East Africa to avert a catastrophe,” she said.

Hussein Mohammed contributed reporting from Mogadishu, Somalia. The war in Ukraine increases hunger in East Africa

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