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Countries in the Horn of Africa are experiencing the worst drought in 40 years

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Countries in the Horn of Africa are experiencing their worst drought in 40 years. Four years of insufficient rain has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the region, and one group is especially vulnerable - children. NPR Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta joins us now from a small town in southeast Ethiopia, Dollo Ado, on the border of Somalia. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Eyder, the Horn of Africa is known for drought, so can you give us some context? Like, how bad is this one?

PERALTA: So there's two ways of measuring this. If you look at satellite data, this is the worst drought in 40 years. But if you look at the 120 years of records kept by Ethiopia, this is the worst drought ever recorded. Some places have already gone years without rain, and the U.N. is predicting that the next rainy season will also fail. And so they're warning that if the world doesn't do more, we could be looking at a situation like the one in Somalia in 2011, when 260,000 people, most of them children, died of hunger.

RASCOE: Wow. You've been traveling a bit. Can you tell us about what you've seen and heard about this?

PERALTA: It's all about climate change. Ten years ago, this was an area full of cows and green pasture. People here are nomadic herders. And now this place looks like a desert. It's sand and rocks. And in some places, the acacia trees, which are these thorny trees, have dropped all of their leaves. The people we've talked to say that over the past seven years or so, they have slowly lost their livestock. Some people who had hundreds of goats and cows say they've all died. And as we've been driving, we've seen very few cows. The ones that we have seen look skinny and sick. And sometimes in the middle of these dusty fields, we've seen the carcasses of cows and sheep who just couldn't get enough to eat.

We've been to small villages that are now totally abandoned. People have been living without water for years, and now that their livestock are dead, they've been left with no choice but to go to the bigger towns to find a job or some help. And the context is really important here. Remember that livestock is the wealth and life in this region. Many people don't farm, so the cows and goats and camels are the food. So the animals represent not just their savings, but everything that was carefully built by their ancestors. So when someone here tells you that they've lost all their animals, what they're telling you is that they have lost their home, their wealth and their livelihood, that they have lost everything.

RASCOE: And this situation is being exacerbated by outside events. Like, what is happening with that?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, this region has just not gotten a break. They've dealt with locusts, the pandemic, the Ethiopian civil war, drought. And now the war in Ukraine has sent prices through the (inaudible). And this could not happen at a worse time because there is no pasture, so people need to buy food for their animals. But now it's doubled in price, and they just can't afford it. Government officials were telling me that they had finally gotten some tractors out here to help jumpstart some farming, but now there's a shortage of fuel. So these shiny new tractors that could potentially help stem this crisis are just sitting there.

RASCOE: So, I mean, a lot of people listening to this are going to be thinking, like, this is horrific. Long term, how can the region emerge from this cycle of drought and hunger? Like, what can be done?

PERALTA: Scientists I've spoken to here say that climate change means that this may well be the new normal for this region. And, you know, as I told you, the people who live here have herded animals for centuries. And scientists say because this land has become harsher, they may no longer be able to do that. They say that if people are to survive on these lands, they will have to farm using irrigation. And it means that people are inevitably going to have to change the way they live. A bit of good news from here is that many of the people that I've spoken to say that now that they've lost everything, they're willing to consider anything.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta. Eyder, thank you so much.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ayesha.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.