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The Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the longest and most severe droughts on record. The region has experienced five consecutive failed rainy seasons, and the World Food Programme has warned of the risk of famine in parts of Somalia if the March to June 2023 rainy season also fails. Unprecedented floods are also affecting South Sudan. Humanitarian agencies warn another failed rainy season “would have devastating consequences for communities” and the “sheer scale, severity, and magnitude of suffering” means the region will take many years to fully recover.

The drought has weakened people’s ability to grow crops, raise livestock and buy food. Conflict and insecurity have also contributed to the humanitarian situation, both from localised violence and food and energy price increases as a result of the war in Ukraine. Competition over scarce resources may also be a driver of intercommunal violence. Internal displacement has separated people from their land, further limiting opportunities to produce food, while also increasing demand on humanitarian agencies. Millions are displaced internally and across borders. UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, is appealing for $137 million to support populations affected by the drought.

The House of Lords Library published an In Focus article on projections of a famine in 2023 in the Horn of Africa, in January 2023, from which some of the material below is drawn.

What is famine?

To determine the level of food (in)security and declare a famine, certain conditions need to be met.

The International Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) is an international framework used to assess the severity and magnitude of food insecurity and malnutrition. The IPC contains five phases of hunger crisis, ranging from phase 1 (minimal/none) to phase 5 (catastrophe/famine). Each phase has its own set of criteria, with urgent action required for phases 3 to 5. The box illustrates the IPC phases and associated criteria.

In this framework, famine occurs when at least 20% of the population in a given area face extreme food shortages, more than 30% are suffering from acute malnutrition, and at least two in every 10,000 people die every day from hunger.

The World Food Programme and other agencies will often cite IPC estimates for the numbers of people experiencing or likely to experience high levels of acute food insecurity.

 International Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)

 The five phases of the International Food Security Phase Classification system

(Source: The International Food Security Phase Classification Global Partners, ‘Integrated Food Security Phase Classification Technical Manual Version 3.1’, August 2021)

Five consecutive failed rainy seasons

Rainfall in Africa is concentrated in two rainy seasons: one in March to May, and one in October to December. Analysis by NASA’s earth observatory shows that a combination of human-induced warming, Indian Ocean sea surface temperatures, and La Niña have contributed to consecutive dry rainy seasons. This is reportedly the longest and most severe drought on record for the region.

This debate is being held during the sixth consecutive rainy season (March to May 2023).

In February 2023 the World Meteorological Organisation forecast below-normal rainfall in most parts of the region. The WMO said should this happen, it would be “unprecedented sixth poor season for the worst hit countries – Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia”. This warning was echoed in a joint alert by meteorological agencies and humanitarian partners, including the WMO, issued on 16 February 2023 of the need for immediate humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa. The alert also warned of the possibility of heavy rainfall later in the year, which could add additional shocks such as flash floods and water-borne diseases.

Countries affected by hunger in East Africa

Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan are the most affected countries in the Horn of Africa. The IPC warns there is a risk of famine in some areas of Somalia between April and June 2023.

The World Health Organisation estimates 46 million people are in IPC phase 3 (crisis) or above across seven countries: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. In a funding appeal issued in March 2023, the WHO called for $178 million to support humanitarian assistance in 2023.

Much of the following is taken from IPC country forecasts. These figures are used in a Horn of Africa drought situation appeal by the UNHCR, published on 28 February 2023, and by the World Food Programme in their publications on the region.


The World Food Programme warns Somalia faces “catastrophic hunger”. The IPC estimates 223,000 people could be in IPC phase 5 (catastrophe) in the most affected areas across Somalia through the middle of 2023. The IPC warns that while projected famine in Baidoa and Burhakaba districts between October and December 2022 was averted, there is still a strong possibility of famine between April and June 2023 (PDF) if the next rainy seasons fails, if humanitarian assistance is not sustained and conflict intensifies.


Millions of people remain in need of food assistance in the northern regions of Tigray, Afar and Amhara following a two-year conflict (November 2020 to November 2022). Many more are affected by drought in the southern Somali region. Across the country, nearly 12 million people are facing severe hunger due to drought.


Kenya declared a national disaster in September 2021 because of the drought. The World Food Programme estimates 3.5 million people are in urgent need of food assistance, with the drought resulting in close to 2.4 million livestock deaths. The IPC warns of a “likely unprecedented deterioration in Kenya’s food security situation”, with a 43% increase in population in IPC phase 3 or above in February 2023 compared to October to December 2022; an estimated 4.4 million people are facing IPC phase 3 or above. Over a quarter of these people live in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands areas. The IPC says “urgent action is required to reduce food gaps, protect their livelihoods, and prevent and treat acute malnutrition”.

Food insecurity in Kenya is primarily driven by a fifth successive below-average rainy season, resulting in below-average crop production, poor livestock conditions and higher exposure to livestock disease.


The ongoing unrest and insecurity in Sudan could affect people’s access to food. The World Food Programme has temporarily suspended operations in the country after three staff members were killed in clashes on 16 April.

Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for Development and Africa, condemned the attacks in an an oral statement on Sudan in the House of Commons on 17 April 2023.

The situation in Sudan remains fluid, information in this briefing is correct as of the time of writing.

The World Food Programme estimates 15.8 million people are food insecure in Sudan. The price of staple goods has increased by over 150% in 2022.

South Sudan

The World Food Programme estimates over two-thirds of the population – over 7.7 million people – are facing crisis or worse levels of hunger. The WFP says this surpasses the number seen at the height of the civil war.

The WFP says that parts of South Sudan are experiencing “an unprecedented flooding crisis” while other parts grapple with “devastating drought”.

Responses and humanitarian appeals

In November 2022 a group of 16 organisations, including the WHO, UNHCR and IPC, issued an immediate call to action to help vulnerable communities in the Horn of Africa (PDF). At the time, they estimated nearly 21 million to be highly food insecure (IPC phase 3 and above). They also warned that regardless of the next season’s rain “recovery from a drought of this magnitude will take years”.

The same organisations issued a further call on 16 February 2023, describing the Horn of Africa as “facing an unprecedented three-year drought” (PDF) with another forecasted poor rainy season as likely to have “devastating consequences for communities.”

The International Development Committee heard from regional experts on hunger in the Horn of Africa in November 2022. Michael Dunford, the regional director for the World Food Programme, told the committee at the time that without further action from the UK and the international community, there will be famine in the Horn of Africa and “people will die at levels that we have not seen in recent history.”

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