Inside the Horn of Africa’s hunger crisis

Drought, conflict, instability, and rising prices are creating unprecedented levels of food insecurity and looming famine, this photojournalist reports.

Khadijo Ibrahim Abikar, 50, holds her severely malnourished two-year-old granddaughter, Naima Adan Ali, in a medical centre supported by the Save the Children humanitarian aid organisation in Baidoa, Somalia. The photograph was taken on the 10th day Naima received treatment and her health was improving. “We came due to drought," says Abikar. "We lost all our livestock and the farm was affected locusts. Before, we had more than 55 goats and cattle were 45. Now we have only three camels and they don’t give milk because they are malnourished.”

By Lynsey Addario
Published 4 Nov 2022, 13:10 GMT

In a makeshift shelter at one of the many camps for those displaced by the relentless drought punishing the Horn of Africa, Edaba Yusuf watches over the tiny body of her four-year-old son, Salman Mohamed Abdirahman, who died that morning from severe malnutrition and measles. He is the third child the mother of eight has lost to hunger in less than four weeks. 

Two of her boys died in their village in southwestern Somalia, which prompted the family to travel to Baidoa—a city surrounded by the al-Shabaab militant group but still accessible to humanitarian agencies that provide food, water, and medical treatment to help alleviate some of the desperation.

Ahmed Ibrahim Yousef, 75, helps deliver a baby camel to a malnourished and dehydrated mother in ...

Ahmed Ibrahim Yousef, 75, helps deliver a baby camel to a malnourished and dehydrated mother in a village near the border with Somaliland in the Horn of Africa.

Photograph by Lynsey Addario
The carcasses of animals that died from malnutrition and lack of water from the ongoing drought ...
The carcasses of animals that died from malnutrition and lack of water from the ongoing drought lay discarded outside Usgure village in northeastern Somalia. The animals belonged to a pastoralist family that owned 200 goats and sheep before the rains ceased. “At the start of drought, we lost two, three goats per day," says Iqro Jama, 20. "Then we moved here with about 20 and lost the last one a few days ago.”
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Hamso Mohammed Mousse, 35, center, fills water containers for herself and other displaced families after a ...
Hamso Mohammed Mousse, 35, center, fills water containers for herself and other displaced families after a water truck sponsored by Save the Children arrived at a camp for the displaced in Puntland, Somalia. “Our survival is 50/50. We are between life and death.”
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Somali families receive a water delivery at a new camp for those displaced by the ongoing ...
Somali families receive a water delivery at a new camp for those displaced by the ongoing drought in near Usgure village, in Puntland, Somalia. The country is experiencing its worst drought in four decades; leaving thousands of cattle and livestock dead, families displaced, and a population facing the likely prospect of a famine.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
At a camp in Baidoa, Somalia Edaba Yusuf sits next to the body of her four-year-old ...
At a camp in Baidoa, Somalia Edaba Yusuf sits next to the body of her four-year-old son, Salman Mohamed, who died that morning from severe malnutrition and measles. He is the third child the mother of eight has lost to hunger in less than four weeks. “They were hungry, and I had nothing to sell,” says Yusuf. “I thought to myself, ‘let me move to where I can get humanitarian assistance before I lose the rest.’”
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Women displaced by drought seek help at the the Gabo Gabo camp about 15 miles from ...
Women displaced by drought seek help at the the Gabo Gabo camp about 15 miles from Jijiga, the capital city of Somali region, Ethiopia, May 2021.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

“They were hungry, and I had nothing to sell,” says Yusuf.  “I thought to myself, ‘let me move to where I can get humanitarian assistance before I lose the rest.’”

Three of her five remaining children are now sick with measles.

Ethiopian women return from fetching water from a nearby well. Because of the prolonged drought, women ...
Ethiopian women return from fetching water from a nearby well. Because of the prolonged drought, women generally have to walk for hours, if not days, to fetch water to drink, cook and bathe. The women in this May 2021 photograph were fortunate to have a well close by built by one of the aid organizations in the area.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Gaas Mohammed digs a hole to collect rainwater in a village in the Afar region of ...
Gaas Mohammed digs a hole to collect rainwater in a village in the Afar region of Ethiopia, May 2021. Like elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, little rainfall due to climate change has led to severe drought.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

The lack of rain, ongoing conflict, political instability, and soaring food prices driven up by the war in Ukraine, are bringing hunger and food insecurity to critical levels to countries on the easternmost part of the African continent.

With the worst drought to hit the area in four decades, many communities are experiencing unprecedented levels of food shortage, spurring a malnutrition emergency across the Horn of Africa, including, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. More than 37 million people—including an estimated seven million children—are on the verge of famine, according to various aid organisations.

The crisis comes as world leaders prepare to gather in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt on November 6 for the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the COP27, participating countries negotiate their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as the Earth experiences more devastating natural disasters and species extinction as well as growing food demand and water scarcity.

A displaced Somali woman builds a new shelter in the Bolo Isaack Madow camp in Baidoa, ...
A displaced Somali woman builds a new shelter in the Bolo Isaack Madow camp in Baidoa, Somalia. More than one million people have been displaced due to the ongoing drought in the country.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Ugaso Mohamed holds a bucket to milk one of her goats as her daughter, Yusra Abdulahi, ...
Ugaso Mohamed holds a bucket to milk one of her goats as her daughter, Yusra Abdulahi, helps tend to the animals on a farm outside Jijiga in the Somali region of Ethiopia, May 2021. Previous to the drought, camels would provide as much as eight jugs of milk but "now we don’t even get a full one," Mohamed says.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Halima Awale walks malnourished cows in a village outside Jijiga, Ethiopia where Mercy Corps is providing ...
Halima Awale walks malnourished cows in a village outside Jijiga, Ethiopia where Mercy Corps is providing humanitarian aid.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
Twenty-eight-year-old Şahan Omer Jibrin, a mother of eight children, has been living in a camp for ...
Twenty-eight-year-old Şahan Omer Jibrin, a mother of eight children, has been living in a camp for three months. She had to flee her home in Ula Ula, Ethiopia to seek aid because of the drought.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

“Across East Africa, we are seeing that the people who did the least to cause climate change are suffering the most from its effects,” says Sean Granville-Ross, Mercy Corps regional director for Africa. “Communities are experiencing the severe impacts of the climate crisis in many forms such as severe drought. And conversely, in some areas, flooding, changing weather patterns, and its impacts are undermining food production and traditional livelihoods.”

“The international community should act quickly and provide immediate emergency funding to sustain and significantly scale up the response to help prevent thousands of children from dying from hunger,” says Said Mohamud Isse, national media and communications advisor for Save the Children’s Somalia Country Office.

The scenes portray a calamitous situation.

Fatuma Yassin, 34, embraces her three-month-old son, Khalid, who is severely malnourished, in the Gardo Hospital in Puntland, Somalia. Yassin and her four children were dependent on pastoralist relatives to provide meat and milk from the animals. But as the drought persisted, relatives moved away in search of food and water.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Explorer Lynsey Addario’s work since 2020.
Photograph by Illustration by Joe McKendry

Somalia, which relies on grain imports from Ukraine, is facing the most extreme conditions as food and fuel prices continue to rise with the war. The lack of rain has decimated crops, livestock are dying in high numbers, more than 500,000 children under the age of five are severely malnourished, some 300,000 people are facing a catastrophic level of food shortage, and an estimated 1.1 million people are displaced by the current crisis.

In Baidoa, an estimated 600,000 displaced people are spread across some 500 separate camps. In one of them, Khadija Muali crouches in the hot shade with dozens of other women and children who had just arrived from a rural town southeast of the city after walking for one week with her children in search of food and water. 

Muali had four children when she left Dinsor. Now, she has two: “My children died along the way from hunger and fatigue.” Her three-year-old daughter, Hawa Lul, passed away on the first day of their trek; seven-year-old Abdul Rasaq on the fourth. Other villagers helped her bury them along the road.

“When you see your child crying because of lack of food, and there is conflict, and no possibility of casual work,” she says, “what do you do?”

Hafsa Mohamed Musa, a mother of five children, has been living in a displacement camp for six months while her husband tries to earn an income elsewhere.

“We were among the nomadic pastoralists with livestock but most of the livestock died in the droughts,” she says, adding that the family had previously led a good life.

“In the past, there was plenty. We used to milk the livestock, sold some, and slaughtered some for getting meat. Then there came a two-year consecutive drought. The goats we had could not get pasture,” she says. “After the drought has set in, our lives have been difficult. We live by the handouts from well-wishers.”

A grave humanitarian crisis also is unfolding in Ethiopia, which is struggling with a vicious civil war in the north and devastating climate-change effects in the south. Prolonged drought has wiped out livestock, driven displacement, and altered families’ ability to make a living.

After hearing rumors of rain near the Somali border, these camel herders walked 12 days to search, unsuccessfully, for pasture there—then 12 days back to draw water for their animals from this well near their home.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic
The dry, barren landscape of Puntland, Somalia, which is currently facing critical food insecurity levels, according to Save the Children.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

At least 5.2 million people are urgently in need of food support, about three million children are at risk of malnutrition, and more than 3.5 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water.

“When I first came, they were drinking so much milk… I saw naughty boys throwing milk at each other, fooling around,” says Australian nurse Valerie Browning, program coordinator for the Afar Pastoralist Development Association in Ethiopia, who has lived among the Afar nomads for more than three decades. “Now, the situation is such that to find enough milk for the bottom of the cup to make milk tea is nearly impossible.”

Sadio Abdi Rahman Ahmed, 50, stands with three of her six children near their tent at a camp in Baidoa, Somalia. Front left to right are Faiso, eight, Abdi Haffid, three, and Ahalan, five.
Photograph by Lynsey Addario, National Geographic

Photojournalist Lynsey Addario recently spent nine days in Somalia for National Geographic. She also travelled to Tigray, Ethiopia last year to chronicle how the violence was affecting the people who live there. Follow her on Instagram @lynseyaddario.

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