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Drought Crisis: Health Catastrophe in Sahel and Horn of Africa

Credit: AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

More than 60 million people across 13 countries in the greater Horn of Africa and the Sahel face extreme hunger or are in need of life-saving assistance as WHO warns the current crises amount to a health emergency.

Some countries are facing the worst drought in a generation, while others are coping with dramatic flooding. The emergency is heightened across both regions by conflict and a sharp rise in global food and fuel prices, linked to the war in Ukraine. The situation is already dire and fast deteriorating.

The Horn of Africa

In the Greater Horn of Africa Region (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda) WHO estimates that just under 29 million people face hunger, meaning their lives or livelihoods are in danger. The humanitarian crisis is the result of a combination of factors including drought in Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda and floods in Sudan and South Sudan.  

Crops across the region have failed and livestock has died, due to a lack of water and pasture, leaving many people in a position where they have little or nothing to eat or sell to support and care for their families. 

Lack of access to safe drinking water has exposed people to water-borne diseases and malnutrition heightens their vulnerability to other infectious diseases such as malaria, measles, and COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes, traveling hundreds of miles in an effort to obtain food and clean water. This takes them away from health services just when they need them most.

This food insecurity has severely affected children. WHO estimates that 11 million children across the seven countries are acutely malnourished.  Countries such as South Sudan have been particularly hard hit with approximately 1.3 million children under five years facing acute malnutrition. Complications from acute malnutrition in children include severe diarrhea, hypothermia, pneumonia, and sepsis; each of which can be life-threatening. 

Additionally, due to lack of access to food and safe drinking water, people in the region face multiple disease outbreaks such as cholera, measles, and COVID-19. Cases of preventable diseases such as polio, malaria, meningitis, and hepatitis E continue to increase.

A Forgotten Crisis

In Sahel, the UN  reports that in 2022, 334.6 million people are expected to need life-saving support, as years of conflict, instability and food shortages culminate in a widespread humanitarian crisis.  The crisis in the Sahel has displaced 7.5 million people of which 1.5 million are are now refugees.
18.6 million people in the region face food insecurity with 1.8 million children severely malnourished. Niger, Chad and Mali each count over 300,000 children in this predicament. 

Populations in the Sahel across Burkina Faso, Cameroon (Far-North), Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, are affected by a lack of essential health services and medical supplies urgently and are traumatized by ongoing violence. 

WHO describes the situation as ‘one of the fastest growing yet most forgotten crises in the world’.

WHO’s emergency health teams in the Horn of Africa and Sahel continue to support national health ministries to save lives. These teams however need additional capacity, supplies, and reinforcements. As the number of refugees and children who are severely malnourished continues to rise, the need for healthcare will grow rapidly. We urge anyone who can to contribute to the appeal, to do so, as every donation can help,” said Martina Dhliwayo, Emergencies Lead at the WHO Foundation.  

WHO has taken the unprecedented step of declaring the drought the most urgent category of health crisis, on par with the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. It has allocated more than US$16.5 million from its Contingency Fund for Emergencies to provide emergency assistance for the Horn of Africa Region and US$8.3 million for Sahel.

Credit: AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh

How WHO is working on the ground

From its new health emergency hub in Nairobi, Kenya, WHO is monitoring the escalating crisis and coordinating emergency medical teams across the seven countries in the Horn of Africa to prevent, detect and treat infectious disease outbreaks.

In both regions, WHO, via its Regional Office for Africa and its Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean has been working to ensure that populations receive the urgent healthcare they need. They are doing so by delivering life-saving medical supplies including vaccines, medicines and equipment to treat malnutrition, particularly in children. WHO is also working with ministries of health to set up disease surveillance systems including outbreaks of meningococcal meningitis, a serious and potentially fatal bacterial infection, establishing supply chains for medicines and health equipment, rolling out emergency immunization campaigns, and preventing, detecting and responding to infectious disease outbreaks which include measles, cholera and meningitis.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Africa Regional Director, urged the need to support the Horn of Africa and the Sahel during the UN General Assembly, and she said: “Millions of people are being forced to the brink of starvation and into extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. Emergency health services have been severely impaired by chronically low funding. We need to sustain humanitarian assistance and ensure that these emergencies do not  slip off the world’s attention.”

Helping sick people access essential health services remains a priority, all while improving services for survivors of gender based violence, and Improving mental health services for people suffering from trauma.

Funding the appeals

WHO has calculated that just under US$63 million is needed to deliver emergency healthcare for the six countries in the Sahel in 2022. In the Greater Horn of Africa, nearly US$ 123.8 million is needed. 

The WHO Foundation has launched its Health Emergency Appeal for the Drought Crises in the Sahel and the Greater Horn of Africa. We are playing a key role in supporting the WHO’s appeals in both regions, and so can you. We are calling on individuals, businesses , and others to support the emergency health response.

Your contribution will go directly to deliver urgent healthcare to people affected by this crisis. By supporting the WHO Foundation’s appeal, you will help WHO protect the health of millions of  vulnerable people and save many lives during this crisis.

To donate, visit


September 20, 2022, 14 min. read
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