A Catholic Relief Services team is on the ground in the eastern Kenyan town of Dadaab, home to a sprawling refugee camp that sees some 1,300 people arriving each day from drought-stricken Somalia. That is only one of the countries in East Africa where hunger and the threat of malnutrition are the daily reality for more than 11 million people.
The United Nations officially declared a famine in parts of Somalia, the first such declaration in two decades, signaling that many are dying from a lack of food. The famine-struck areas are plagued by violence, which severely limits humanitarian assistance.
Working with Church partners through the region's bishop, CRS has been able to get some aid into the stricken areas of Somalia. But for families unable to access aid there, survival means walking across a harsh desert to camps like the one in Dadaab, in a region of Kenya that is also suffering drought conditions.
Active in Kenya for decades, CRS' many programs address agricultural and water needs that have helped mitigate the effects of the drought. But the severity of the drought coupled with rising food prices are overwhelming the ability of millions of people in East Africa to cope, CRS staff members in the region report.
"Rains last fall failed completely," says CRS Africa Team Leader Brian Gleeson. "And spring rains earlier this year were erratic and weak. As a result, farmers have experienced horrible harvests, and pastoralists are seeing their livestock dying off."
This drought—it's one of the driest years in the region since 1950-51—has combined with increased food costs to put more than 11 million people across the Horn of Africa in need of humanitarian assistance. Many are in Somalia, though most are in Kenya and Ethiopia, countries where CRS has worked for decades.
Much of CRS' work in these countries focuses on water and agriculture programs that have helped alleviate the growing drought conditions over the past several months.
In Ethiopia, the CRS-led Joint Emergency Operations Plan is ramping up; now feeding 400,000 people, it aims to serve 1 million later this month.
Other CRS staff, including the Nairobi-based Emergency Response Team, is working with Caritas Internationalis, government authorities and other partners to plan further responses.
"This drought comes as prices for staple foods are increasing—in some cases, more than doubling in the past year," Gleeson says.
Many already spend a huge percentage of their income on food. A rise in prices pushes them over the edge.
"These price increases strike particularly hard in urban areas where people must purchase all their food," Gleeson says. "In non-drought conditions, rural farmers often benefit from rising food prices because they can sell their crops for higher prices. But right now, they have no crops to sell due to the drought. So they and their families are also hurting."
Gleeson says the crisis will likely worsen before it eases with the October harvest.
"But many areas had very poor spring rains, so the harvest will not be enough," he said. "And if the fall rains are not strong—or fail again—then this crisis is going to get much, much worse."
Michael Hill is senior communications manager at CRS headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.