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Children in parts of Africa experiencing severe drought are one sickness away from disaster

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When chronic starvation and the risk of water-borne disease combine, children in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel could die in terrible numbers, warns UNICEF during World Water Week.

History demonstrates that child mortality increases dramatically and tragically when high levels of severe acute malnutrition in children coexist with deadly outbreaks of illnesses like cholera or diarrhea. Children are at exponentially greater danger when water is either unavailable or unsafe, according to UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Millions of youngsters in the Sahel and Horn of Africa are just one sickness away from disaster,”

From 9.5 million in February to 16.2 million in July, the number of drought-affected individuals in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia lacking consistent access to safe water grew, putting children and their families at an elevated risk of getting diseases including cholera and diarrhea1.

Drought, conflict, and instability are causing water insecurity in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, where 40 million children face high to extremely high levels of water vulnerability2. According to WHO data , the Sahel region already has more children dying from unclean water and sanitation than any other region in the world.

In the Horn of Africa, the majority of residents rely on water that is brought by traders in trucks or donkey carts. Many families no longer have access to water in the areas most affected by the drought.

  • In Ethiopia, the price of water in June this year has doubled in Oromia and increased by 50% in Somali compared to the start of the drought in October 2021. 
  • In Kenya, 23 counties have experienced significant price hikes, with Mandera seeing the largest increases at 400% and Garissa at 260%.
  • In Somalia, the cost of water has increased on average by 85% in South Mudug and by 55 and 75% in Buurhakaba and Ceel Berde, respectively, since January 2022..

In both regions, more than 2.8 million children already have severe acute malnutrition, which puts them up to 11 times more at risk of dying from water-borne illnesses than children who are adequately fed.

With 8,200 cases reported between January and June, more than twice as many as during the same period previous year, outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea and cholera have been documented in practically all of Somalia’s drought-affected districts..

Children under the age of five make up over two thirds of those who are afflicted. In the most severely affected regions of Ethiopia, including Afar, Somalia, SNNP, and Oromia, between June 2021 and June 2022, UNICEF and partners treated more than 1.2 million cases of diarrhoea in children under the age of five. In Kenya, over 90% of open water sources, including ponds and open wells, are either dried up or depleted, creating a major risk of disease breakout.

Due to climate change and other complicated variables like violence, the availability of water in the Sahel has decreased by more than 40% over the past 20 years, putting millions of children and families at an elevated risk of waterborne infections. West and Central Africa experienced its biggest cholera outbreak in the last six years just last year, with 5,610 cases and 170 fatalities in Central Sahel. 

In the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, UNICEF is delivering life-saving assistance and resilient multisectoral services to children and their families in need. These services include enhancing access to climate-resilient water, sanitation, and hygiene services, drilling for dependable groundwater sources, developing the use of solar systems, identifying and treating malnourished children, and expanding prevention programs.

Only 3% of donations have been made in response to UNICEF’s plea to strengthen families’ long-term resilience in the Horn of Africa region and stop the drought from destroying lives for years to come. For the portion devoted to water, sanitation, and climate resilience, essentially little money has been received.

Only 22% of the requested funding has been allocated for the Central Sahel region’s appeal to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene programs for disadvantaged families and children.

Imagine having to decide between buying bread or water for a sick child who is hungry and thirsty, or between allowing your child to suffer from acute hunger or letting them drink tainted water that can spread deadly infections, added Russell. Families in drought-stricken areas are being forced to make tough decisions. Governments, donors, and the international community must increase financing to address children’s urgent needs and offer long-term adaptable support to break the crisis cycle if this catastrophe is to be stopped.


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