You'd think that with the Ebola outbreak, the Syrian refugee crisis and the Nepal Earthquake we've had enough gut-wrenching humanitarian emergencies for one year. But a fresh crisis is brewing in the Horn of Africa and the cause is very familiar to Australians: El Nino.
The warming sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean – dubbed El Nino – is causing dryer than usual conditions in eastern Australia. On Thursday the Bureau of Meteorology warned its impact is likely to intensify in the months ahead stoking the risk of drought and bushfire. This El Nino is so strong it has been described as "Godzilla" and much of the country has already experienced scorching October temperatures. But El Nino is also playing havoc in the Horn of Africa. It has been blamed for the failure of crucial mid-year rains across vast swathes of Ethiopia triggering what the United Nations calls a "slow onset" emergency.
The number estimated to be in need of emergency food assistance in drought-stricken regions of Ethiopia has surged from 4.5 million to about 7.5 million since August. More than 300,000 children are already severely malnourished and the UN warns that 15 million people could need assistance by next year. Food shortages are set to worsen over the next six months as the El Nino event keeps large parts of the country dry well into 2016. In neighbouring Somalia a further 855,000 people are reportedly in need "life-saving assistance" and the UN warns 2.3 million more people there are "highly vulnerable".
It's only four years since I witnessed first-hand how devastating drought in the Horn of Africa can be. In mid-2011 I travelled to the Dadaab refugee camp near Kenya's border with Somalia to report on the food crisis gripping the region. The massive camp had been swamped by tens of thousands of destitute Somali farming families desperate for food and water. I was shocked by how many malnourished children were not receiving help.
In an attempt to highlight this I visited a group of newly arrived families living in makeshift humpies on the outskirts of the camp and asked if I could check the nutritional status of their young children. I did this by measuring the circumference of the children's mid-upper arm – one indicator of undernourishment.
Within a few hours I had identified about a dozen badly malnourished children under five years who were not receiving any medical treatment. It was frustrating that better assistance was not available – if I could find these needy children surely the international humanitarian system could? But the lack of resources in the camp was symptomatic of the sluggish donor response to the 2011 Horn of Africa food crisis.
That year aid agencies issued warnings months in advance that drought-affected communities were becoming more and more vulnerable. Yet the response was slow and indecisive. Things got so bad that famine was eventually declared in parts of Somalia. A report by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health found more than 260,000 died during the food crisis, the majority of them children.
It looks like the trauma I witnessed four years ago is being repeated. The Ethiopian government is responding to the worsening food crisis but most international donors are yet to heed the warnings.
"It's like everything we witnessed in 2011 is coming back again," one frustrated aid worker in Ethiopia told me. "How on earth are we going to feed 7½ million people for six months because the next harvest is not until June? And how do we treat 300,000 kids with severe acute malnutrition? Not only is there no funding but we haven't procured any food. Even if we had the money, the food procurement pipelines are long and slow … so we've found ourselves looking down the barrel of a gun – there's simply no money and no food in the pipeline."
Images of malnourished children and parched landscapes in the Horn of Africa are all too familiar. The great Ethiopian famine of 1984 shocked the world and even spawned a new style of celebrity activism with Band Aid in 1984 and the Live Aid concerts in 1985. But Ethiopia is a very different country to the one convulsed by famine in the mid-1980s. Like many other African nations it has experienced years of rapid modernisation and rising living standards.
Even so, the combination of a burgeoning population – which has grown by more than 40 per cent to about 100 million in the past decade – and a critical dependence on rain-fed agriculture means the country is still very exposed to drought. Aid workers based in the Horn of Africa say they can already see a trend towards weather extremes and are alarmed that its just four years since drought triggered a major humanitarian crisis in the region. It underscores how vulnerable the region is to the long-term effects of climate change.
"Parts of the Horn of Africa are already some of the driest places on Earth and they are likely to get dryer over time due to climate change," said Robert Glasser, the former director general of aid agency Care International. "We're seeing evidence of these changes already."
The looming crisis in the Horn of Africa will put additional pressure on an international humanitarian system that is already overstretched. Aid groups are grappling with the enormous refugee crisis triggered by the Syrian conflict along with major emergencies in South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and the Central African Republic. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are struggling to rebuild after the worst Ebola outbreak in history while in Nepal tens of thousands are still homeless and dependent on assistance following April's devastating earthquake.
But a repeat of the 2011 Horn of Africa famine must not be allowed. It will test the generosity of wealthy nations like Australia. By Matt Wade Sydney Morning Herald Illustration: Simon Bosch