How the 2011 East Africa Drought Affected Millions of People and the Environment

How the 2011 East Africa Drought Affected Millions of People and the Environment

The 2011 East Africa Drought: Causes, Consequences and Responses


The 2011 East Africa drought was one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. It affected approximately 14 million people across Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, and caused a severe food crisis that threatened their livelihoods and survival. 

The drought was the result of a series of failed rains that were influenced by the La Niña weather phenomenon and climate change. The drought also exacerbated the existing conflicts and instability in the region, especially in Somalia, where famine was declared in two regions for the first time in nearly 30 years. The international community responded with humanitarian aid and interventions, but faced many challenges and limitations due to the complex political and security situation.

Causes of the drought

The main cause of the drought was the lack of rainfall in the region. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), the rains failed over two consecutive seasons: the October-December 2010 short rains and the March-May 2011 long rains. These rains are crucial for crop production and pasture regeneration in East Africa. The failure of the rains was attributed to the La Niña event that occurred between 2010 and 2011, which is a cooling of the surface waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean that affects global weather patterns. La Niña tends to reduce rainfall in East Africa by shifting the location and intensity of the Indian Ocean monsoon.

Another factor that contributed to the drought was climate change. According to some studies, global warming has increased the frequency and severity of droughts in East Africa by altering the atmospheric circulation and moisture availability. Climate change also affects the variability and predictability of rainfall patterns, making it harder for farmers and pastoralists to plan and adapt their livelihood strategies.

Consequences of the drought

The drought had devastating impacts on food security, nutrition, health, livelihoods and displacement in East Africa. According to the UN, more than 9.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance by July 2011. The most affected country was Somalia, where famine was officially declared by the UN in two regions: Bakool and Lower Shabelle. Famine is defined as a situation where more than 30% of children under five are acutely malnourished, more than two people per 10,000 die per day, and people have no access to food or water. The UN estimated that between 50,000 and 260,000 people died as a result of the famine in Somalia between October 2010 and April 2012.

The drought also triggered a massive displacement of people within and across borders. More than 1.5 million Somalis were internally displaced by the drought and conflict, while more than 300,000 refugees fled to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. The refugee camps in these countries were overcrowded, unsanitary and under-resourced, leading to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, measles and malaria. Many refugees also faced protection risks such as violence, abuse and exploitation along their journey or in the camps.

The drought also affected other countries in East Africa, such as Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, where millions of people faced food insecurity, malnutrition, water shortages and livestock losses . The drought also had negative impacts on the environment, such as land degradation, soil erosion, deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

Responses to the drought

The international community responded to the drought with humanitarian aid and interventions. The UN launched several appeals for funding to support its agencies and partners in delivering food, water, health care, sanitation, education and protection services to the affected populations. However, the funding was insufficient and slow to arrive compared to the scale and urgency of the needs. The UN also faced many operational challenges and constraints due to the insecurity, violence and access restrictions imposed by armed groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Some countries also provided bilateral assistance or supported regional initiatives to address the drought. For example, Canada donated $72 million to various humanitarian organizations working in East Africa. The African Union organized a pledging conference in August 2011 that raised $351 million for relief efforts. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional organization comprising eight East African countries, launched a regional platform for coordination and advocacy on drought resilience and sustainability.

In addition to humanitarian aid, some long-term solutions were proposed or implemented to prevent or mitigate future droughts in East Africa. These included improving early warning systems, enhancing food security systems, promoting sustainable agriculture and pastoralism practices.


The 2011 East Africa drought was a humanitarian disaster that affected millions of people in the region. It exposed the vulnerability and fragility of the populations and systems in the face of climatic shocks and conflicts. It also highlighted the need for more effective and timely humanitarian assistance and coordination, as well as long-term solutions to build resilience and sustainability. The drought also served as a wake-up call for the international community to address the root causes and drivers of food insecurity, poverty and instability in East Africa, and to support the efforts of the regional actors and organizations to prevent or mitigate future crises.

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