Children affected by drought in parts of Africa are on the brink of disaster

NEW YORK/NAIROBI/DAKAR, 23 August 2022 The number of children in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel who could die if they do not receive urgent support could be devastating due to the combination of severe malnutrition and the risk of water-borne diseases, UNICEF warned during World Water Week.

“History shows that when high levels of severe acute malnutrition in children are combined with deadly outbreaks of diseases such as cholera or diarrhoea, child mortality rises in alarming and tragic ways. When water is unavailable or unsafe, the risks to children multiply exponentially,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Across the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, millions of children are on the brink of disaster.”

The number of drought-affected people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia without reliable access to safe drinking water rose from 9.5 million in February to 16.2 million in July, a situation that exacerbates the danger that children and their families will infect with diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea1.

In Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, drought, conflict and instability are fueling water insecurity, with 40 million children already exposed to high or extremely high levels of water vulnerabilitytwo. More children are already dying in the Sahel from unsafe water and sanitation than anywhere else in the world, according to the latest WHO figures.

Most people in the Horn of Africa depend on water delivered by traders in trucks or donkey carts. In the areas most affected by the drought, many families no longer have the means to obtain water3.

  • 23 counties in Kenya saw significant price increases compared to January 2021 figures. Mandera, up 400%, and Garissa, up 260%, were the most affected counties.
  • In Ethiopia, in June this year, the price of water doubled in Oromia and increased by 50% in the Somali region compared to the figures recorded at the beginning of the drought in October 2021.
  • In Somalia, average water prices have increased by 85% in South-Mudug and by 55% and 75% in Buurhakaba and Ceel Berde, respectively, compared to January 2022 prices.

More than 2.8 million children in the two regions already suffer from severe acute malnutrition, a condition that increases the risk of death from waterborne diseases by up to 11 times compared to well-nourished children.

In Somalia, outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea and cholera have been reported in almost all drought-affected areas, with 8,200 cases reported between January and June, more than double the number reported during the same period last year.

Nearly two-thirds of those affected are children under the age of five. Between June 2021 and June 2022, UNICEF and its partners treated more than 1.2 million children under five with diarrhea in Ethiopia’s regions most affected by drought: Afar, Somalia, the Regional State of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples in the South and Oromia. In Kenya, more than 90% of external water sources in drought-affected areas – such as lakes and open wells – are depleted or dry, increasing the risk of disease outbreaks.

Across the Sahel, water availability has also declined by more than 40% in the past 20 years due to climate change and complex factors such as conflict, a situation that has increased the risk of millions of children and families suffering from water-borne diseases. Last year alone, West and Central Africa saw the region’s worst cholera outbreak in six years, with 5,610 cases and 170 deaths in the Central Sahel.

UNICEF provides life-saving assistance and multi-sectoral services to build the resilience of children and families in extreme need in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. This includes improving access to weatherproof water, sanitation and hygiene services; drilling for safe groundwater sources and promoting the use of solar systems; identification and treatment of malnourished children; and expanding prevention services.

UNICEF’s appeal to strengthen the long-term resilience of families in the Horn of Africa region – and prevent further drought from destroying lives for years to come – is currently only 3% funded. Of this amount, almost no funding has been received for the section dedicated to water, sanitation and climate resilience. The appeal to meet the needs of children and vulnerable families in the Central Sahel region through water, sanitation and hygiene programs is only 22% funded.

“Imagine having to choose between buying bread or water for a hungry and thirsty child who is already sick, or watching your child suffer from severe thirst, or letting him drink contaminated water that could caused a deadly disease,” Russell said. “Families in all drought-affected regions are forced to make impossible decisions. The only way to stop this crisis is for governments, donors and the international community to increase funding to meet children’s most urgent needs and provide flexible, long-term support to end this cyclical crisis.


Notes to editors:
1 Water security is the ability of the population to ensure sustainable access to adequate quantities of water of acceptable quality to support livelihoods, human well-being and socio-economic development; provide protection against water pollution and water-related disasters; and preservation of ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability. Water insecurity occurs when some or all of these needs cannot be met.

2 Water vulnerability is related to the physical risks arising from water scarcity (source water stress; intra-seasonal and seasonal variability; groundwater decline and drought) and the level of water supply.

3 The sources These include reports from water, sanitation and hygiene groups, providers and anecdotal evidence from affected communities.

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