The children of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa are “only one disease away from catastrophe”

Children displaced by conflict and drought pose for a photo in Semera, Afar region, Ethiopia.

Severe malnutrition and the risk of water-borne diseases suffered by children in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel could lead to devastating mortality if urgent help is not provided, the United Nations Children’s Fund warned on Monday.

Coinciding with the celebration of World Water Week, which is commemorated from August 23 to September 1, the executive director of UNICEF warned that this situation leaves millions of minors in these two large regions of the African continent “with only one disease of the catastrophe”.

“History teaches us that if you combine high levels of severe acute malnutrition in children with deadly outbreaks of diseases such as cholera or diarrhoea, child mortality increases dramatically, and tragically. When water is not accessible or is unhealthy, the risks to children multiply exponentially,” said Catherine Russell.

Exorbitant increase in drought in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia

The number of people affected by drought and without access to clean water in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia increased from 9.5 million in February to 16.2 million in July, exposing children and their families to a higher risk of contracting diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea.

Drought, conflict and instability are leading to water insecurity in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, where 40 million children face high to extremely high levels of water vulnerability.

According to the latest data from the World Health Organizationin the Sahel More children die from unsafe water and sanitation than anywhere else in the world.

Most people in the Horn of Africa depend on water supplied by truck drivers or donkey carts. In the areas most affected by the drought, water is no longer affordable for many families. Some data illustrate the terrible situation:

  • Compared to January 2021, there are 23 counties in Kenya that have seen significant price increases, led by Mandera at 400% and Garissa at 260%.
  • During the month of June, the price of water in the Ethiopian region of Oromia doubled and, compared to the start of the drought in October 2021, it increased by 50% in Somali
  • Relative to January 2022 prices, the average cost of water rose by 85% in the southern Somali region of Mudug, and by 55 and 75% respectively in the towns of Buurhakaba and Ceel Berde


Children displaced by conflict and drought pose for a photo in Semera, Afar region, Ethiopia.

Problems grow: malnutrition, cholera, diarrhoea, drought

UNICEF highlights that more than 2.8 million children in both regions already suffer from severe acute malnutrition, which means that your risk of dying from waterborne diseases is 11 times higher than that of children in well-nourished countries.

Outbreaks of diarrhea and cholera have been reported in nearly all drought-affected districts of Somalia, with 8,200 confirmed cases in the first six months of the year, more than double the number in the same period last year.

About two-thirds of affected children are under the age of five. Between June 2021 and 2022, UNICEF and its partners treated more than 1.2 million cases of diarrhea in children under the age of five in the Ethiopian regions most affected by drought: Afar, Somali, Southern Nations and Peoples and Oromia .

In drought-affected areas of Kenya, more than 90% of open-air water sources – such as ponds and wells – are depleted or dry, posing a serious risk of disease outbreaks.

The availability of water in the Sahel has been reduced by more than 40% in the last 20 years as a result of climate change and other factors such as conflict, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases for millions of children and families.

Just last year, West and Central Africa suffered the worst cholera outbreak in six years, with 5,610 cases and 170 deaths in the Central Sahel.

A mother with her child in her arms walks past the carcasses of cattle killed by severe drought in Marsabit, Kenya.


A mother with her child in her arms walks past the carcasses of cattle killed by severe drought in Marsabit, Kenya.

Humanitarian appeals from the Sahel and the Horn of Africa are at minimum records

UNICEF actions for families in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel include improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene services, drilling reliable groundwater wells, identifying and treating malnourished children , and the expansion of prevention services.

UNICEF’s appeal, aimed at improving the long-term resilience of families in the Horn of Africa region and preventing drought from devastating lives for years to come, is currently only 3% funded. Of that number, almost no money has been received for water, sanitation and climate resilience.

The appeal to meet the needs of vulnerable families in the Central Sahel region through water, sanitation and hygiene programs is only 22% funded.

To draw the desperation of these families, Russell asked to imagine the impossible choice that many mothers and fathers will have to face.

“Imagine having to choose between buying bread or water for a hungry and thirsty child, who is already sick, or between seeing your child become extremely thirsty or letting him drink contaminated water that can cause deadly diseases,” he explained, indicating that the only way to end this crisis happens “because the

governments, donors and the international community increase funding to meet children’s most pressing needs and provide flexible, long-term support to break the cycle of crisis.”

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