East Africa among regions hit hardest, as hopes pinned on Egypt talks

Maasai women gather to watch Maasai morans, or warriors, take part in an Olng'esherr ceremony at the foot of the Maparasha Hills, near Kajiado, in Kenya, Sept 23, 2020. (PHOTO / AP)

With the desperation etched on her face, Elizabeth Kanini, a villager from eastern Kenya, has long endured the ravages of a drought that has left 22 million people in the Horn of Africa on the verge of starvation.

Kanini, a mother of five from the village of Kengo in Kitui County, said going to bed without food is becoming all too common for her family.

They have cut down almost all the hardwood trees on their land and soon they may not be able to keep producing charcoal.

Kanini, the family's breadwinner, was recently diagnosed with kidney problems and ulcers, a condition that has affected her productivity.

Kanini and her family are among the millions across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia who are experiencing extreme hunger due to drought induced by climate change.

The three countries are experiencing the worst drought in 40 years following the failure of four consecutive rainy seasons, and weather experts are projecting an unprecedented fifth season when the rains won't come.

An analysis by the World Health Organization found the number of reported disease outbreaks and climate-related health emergencies in the greater Horn of Africa have reached their highest level this century.

"Climate change is having an impact here and now on the health of Africans in the greater Horn of Africa," Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa, told a media conference this month. "The failure of four consecutive rainy seasons has scorched the earth and pushed people out of their homes in search of food and water.

"It is critical that world leaders reach an agreement on stemming the rise in temperatures at the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is very appropriately taking place in Africa. As a continent, we are the least responsible for global warming, but among the first to experience its tragic impact."

Conference for change

As leaders from around the world gather in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 27, this week, hundreds of millions of people like Kanini who have been the most affected by climate change may have to pin their hopes for survival on a successful conference that results in measures to address the imminent climate disaster.

Many of the delegates at COP 27, which opened on Sunday, have called for action rather than words to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 C from preindustrial levels.

As the delegates were packing their bags for Egypt, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a statement last week that the drought in Somalia has surpassed the 2010-11 and 2016-17 droughts in duration and severity.

In Ethiopia, drought has affected over 24 million people, with 9.9 million of them needing emergency food assistance, according to the World Food Programme.

The UN data indicates that 2.2 million children in the country are acutely malnourished, with 760,000 severely malnourished, because of the drought.

In Kenya, the conditions are worsening in 20 of the 23 arid and semiarid areas in the country, with 4.4 million people needing humanitarian assistance, according to the National Drought Management Authority.

Stephen Kimeu, chief of the Mathima locality in Kitui County, said the many water points have dried up, and people have to walk more than 10 kilometers to reach alternative sources. "I have received reports of some families going without food for three days," he said.

A head teacher from a primary school in Mathima said the rate of pupil absenteeism is increasing and academic performances are slipping.

Esther Salee, a nutrition officer in a pediatric ward at Mwingi Level-Four Hospital in Kitui County, said malnutrition cases have been increasing. She was managing 15 children in the ward, with five of the children having acute malnutrition.

Wang Xiaodong contributed to this story.