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Don't just blame drought for displacement in Horn of Africa

by Alexandra Bilak | Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Wednesday, 7 June 2017 06:48 GMT

Zeinab, 14, (C) washes dishes as her mother Abdir Hussein gestures and her nephews play at a camp for internally displaced people from drought hit areas in Dollow, Somalia April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Several major food security crises are happening in countries with the largest numbers of people fleeing conflict and violence in 2016

After three years of drought in the Horn of Africa, families in South Sudan are eating seeds to survive, risking next season’s crops. In neighbouring Somalia, hundreds of thousands have abandoned their homes, pastures and livestock since the end of last year, moving in search of food, water or work. But is drought alone to blame? New data and analysis by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reveal a more complex picture. ­


It is not a coincidence that several of the current food security crises are taking place in countries that had the largest numbers of people fleeing conflict and violence in 2016 – Nigeria, Yemen, India, Ethiopia and South Sudan – and are also experiencing droughts. 

Drought clearly impacts access to food, livelihoods and increases the potential for conflict over scarce resources, although it’s hard to isolate it as a ‘cause’ of displacement in and of itself. Ask a famished mother in the Horn of Africa why she fled her home for an unknown town, and she is equally likely to name hunger, fears for her safety or loss of livelihoods. 

In South Sudan, for example, severe and recurrent droughts, insecurity and chronic poverty converge into a toxic mix that leaves families with no other option but to move. Dwindling food supplies have reignited community clashes over water points, pasture areas and cattle, forcing farmers off their lands. Famine warnings have been issued for a third county in drought- and conflict-ridden Unity state – where fighting continues to block food aid from reaching people in need. As a result, more than 1.8 million South Sudanese are now displaced within their own country, and another 1.5 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

The complexity of overlapping drivers has been recognised before, but current data collection and analysis does not reflect it. Instead, ‘drought’ is evoked by organisations collecting data displacement as shorthand that varies in meaning across contexts, and is difficult to meaningfully quantify or respond to.

Difficulties isolating and estimating the number of people whose displacement is caused by drought also leaves unclear the distinction between forced displacement and voluntary migration. In slow-onset disasters, households are more likely to leave over extended periods of time rather than in large groups over short timeframes. These situations highlight that displacement and human mobility are better understood on a continuum from predominantly forced to predominantly voluntary. Recognising people forced to move by slow-onset climate processes as displaced, rather than as voluntary migrants, brings them to the attention of governments, humanitarians or development organisations for protection and assistance.


We have to become better at unpacking this continuum of displacement and its drivers, and for this we need better data. Without good data, it is impossible to understand the underlying drivers of past displacement and even less so to assess and mitigate future risks. The current crisis in the Horn of Africa is in part a bi-product of our lack of historical and current data on drought impacts. Even where data is collected, as is the case in Ethiopia, the multidimensional nature of people’s displacement is rarely captured.

Climate and weather events will continue to converge with human causes to force people from their homes. Monitoring displacement in a more integrated manner will be vital, as only by tracking and understanding the multitude of drivers and their convergence can we identify the tipping points at which people’s normal coping strategies are exhausted and they have to move. Only then can we track, respond to, or avert current and future emergencies.