Drought, Famine, and Conflict: A Case from the Horn of Africa

Meedan Mekonnen

September, 2006

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


It is a shame that in the twenty first century, a century heralded by great advances in technology and developed economies that drought and famine still persists in some parts of the world. The end of the Cold War increased the hope of many people that the world's political and economic system would be changed for better, following the narrowing of ideological differences that had so polarized the world. It was hoped that humanity would be better off, as everyone benefited from a new era of world peace and economic development.

However, this has not been the case. On a daily basis, the international mass media is awash with reports of various conflicts across the world. At the same time, there is much news coverage of drought situations in various parts of the globe.

In the Horn of Africa especially, drought is part and parcel of daily life. It is so common that in many African societies, the drought season marks an important part of the annual calendar. In a recent BBC report, the UN expressed fears that ... "The world is in danger of allowing a drought in East Africa to become a humanitarian catastrophe".[1] At the same time, I came across news headline that said, "Kenya drought worsens conflict."[2] These headlines made me think more deeply about the two issues: if conflict and drought are the scourge of our modern world, it would therefore be appropriate to question their symbiotic relationship. If they are related, how do they influence each other? Is drought a cause of conflict or is conflict a cause of drought? Will drought always trigger conflict? Will conflict exacerbate drought? (Conflict cannot change weather patterns, but it can affect agricultural practices, land use, and other social factors that intensify the effects of diminished rainfall, particularly by causing famine).

This paper will show the relationship between drought, famine, and conflict. Drought is mainly a natural phenomenon that affects parts of the world. Some areas of the world with strong economies and viable political structures have successfully responded to the advent of drought in their countries by adjusting water storage, allocation, and usage patterns, while other parts of the world have dismally failed to do so. Africa is an example of an area that suffers from recurring drought and desertification. Short-lived droughts are seldom dangerous; but sequential drought years are. Though sequential droughts are common in the Horn of Africa, people there have not successfully responded to it; rather they have been devastated by it. Is this because almost all of the recent droughts and famines in the Horn of Africa region have occurred in situations of armed conflicts? A relationship seems likely.

In this paper, I argue that drought is a contributing factor to conflict and conflict exacerbates drought, making famine more likely. Therefore, drought, conflict, and famine are inextricably linked, with each acting as a catalyst to the other. The situation in the Horn of Africa will be a showcase to support the thesis.

Definition of Terminology

Drought is a period of aridness, particularly when protracted, that causes widespread harm to crops or prevents their successful growth. Insufficient rainfall and unfavorable weather conditions are natural causes of drought. Environmental degradation caused by the overuse of farmland and deforestation--cutting of trees for household and other purposes--aggravate drought. People's lack of capacity to respond to natural disasters and inefficient or lack of early warning systems also worsens the effects of drought.

Famine is often associated with drought. Different scholars have given various definitions of famine. Amartya Sen defines famine as "unequal distribution of food supply." His argument is that famine is not a shortage of aggregate food supply, but the inability of individuals to afford available food.[3] In this sense, a good harvest throughout a year does not guarantee that there will be no famine. In some instances, for example, governments have manipulated the food supply for political reasons, using food as a weapon.

De Waal has another definition of famine that is drawn from a local perception of famine in Western Sudan. Famine, he says, is "a disruption of life, involving hunger and destitution and sometimes, [but] not always death."[4] De Waal has tried to make a distinction between the European perception of famine-- starvation to death-- and the African view that says that famine involves hunger and destitution, but not necessarily death. Other scholars relate behavioral changes with famine. Edkins, for example, states that famine is "a socio-economic process that causes the accelerated destitution of the most vulnerable and marginal groups in society."[5] Trying to bring all these ideas together, I suggest that for this paper, a working definition of famine as a phenomenon in which a large percentage of population is so undernourished that death by starvation becomes very common.

Drought, prolonged conflict and regional instability, mismanagement of food supplies, and policy failures are causes of famine. In many cases, these situations exist together, each reinforcing each other

Drought a Cause of Conflict

Drought is one of the causes of conflict. Many areas affected by drought are arid and semi-arid areas. Under normal circumstances, these areas are low in resources and under substantial ecological pressure. When drought occurs in such arid areas, the living conditions of local people become very difficult. In these conditions, the land yields no crops and water is insufficient for human consumption as well. People compete for the meager available resources. Pastoral communities are an example of this. Pastoralists depend on their livestock (camels, cattle, sheep, and goats) and move from place to place with their livestock to look for usable pasture land and water. During drought, their movement increases. Sometimes, different pastoral groups move to the same place and want to use the same scarce resources, which cause conflicts between the two communities. There is a history of pastoral communities fighting for scarce resources in Southern parts of Ethiopia, Northern Kenya, parts of Somalia and the Sudan. Most of the conflicts in those areas were manageable, and tend to be resolved by elderly leaders through traditional conflict resolution mechanisms on an ad hoc basis. However, these conflicts are exacerbated and more difficult to resolve when drought occurs.

The present conflict in Turkana in Northern Kenya is a case in point. The region is badly affected by drought. According to a recent World Food Program report, 3.5 million people are currently affected (WFP). People there are fighting for scarce resources. Oxfam, which has a food program in the region, told the BBC that the drought had worsened the conflict there. People are dying from starvation, and they are also dying from conflict, as they fight for water and food. Families are loosing their livestock, which is their main source of livelihood. Subsequently, drought-affected people migrate into other parts of the country. This spreads the pressure on resources and results in conflict spreading into other areas as well. In addition, nomadic groups take their cattle to farmlands in search of pasture. Often there is a conflict between farmers and cattle herders, a situation that is still happening in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia.

Similarly, when the State of Somalia collapsed in early 1990s, the country was also suffering from drought and human caused famine. Rival pastoral clans who had been deprived of development investment invaded the fertile Juba River farming area.[6] Many farmers were caught unprepared and they bore the brunt of the fighting.

The availability of small arms and light weapons along border areas where pastoral communities reside also contributes greatly to conflict. Arms ownership is regarded as necessary for the protection of one's community and livelihood in such areas, as they are situated in remote regions, far from the protection of regular state security. But the prevalence of arms also means the prevalence of armed conflict.

The response of the central government to the drought-affected region determines, to some extent, when and where conflict breaks out. Delays of aid often create a feeling of alienation and marginalization among the affected groups. These communities may form different factions and rebel groups to address their frustration with the central government. In such contexts, conflict erupts among the rebel groups and between the rebels and the government in power.

For example, drought-caused famine was part of the cause of the Sudanese conflict. The Khartoum government was silent when the southern part of Sudan was hit by drought and famine. This angered the Southern people and strengthened their opposition to the Khartoum government.[7] Similarly, the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 and the replacement of authoritarian rule was exacerbated by the monarchy's clumsy handling of famine in the northern part of that country. Likewise, while 8 million Ethiopian people were at risk of drought in 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea were waging war. According to one BBC report, "War and drought are the two words forever associated with the Horn of Africa."[8] This suggests that drought and conflict always reinforce each other or are two sides of a coin.

Conflict as a Cause of Drought-Led Famine

By the same token, conflict has been a contributing factor to drought-led famine. A government that engages in armed conflict has a high military expenditure. Shifting scarce resources to the military budget always weakens critical development needs of a country. When the government's full attention is on the conflict; they cannot pursue drought-relief, social, or development programs. In addition, the government usually spends all the available resources on the conflict, which also prevents it from addressing the economic needs of its people. Such a situation leads to famine. Poor communities are especially exposed to drought and famine since they lack the capacity to respond to natural disasters. Furthermore, when either the government or the rebels recruit soldiers that means taking productive labor from the individual households.

Landmines are an additional serious problem that has a profound impact on health, the economy, and the environment. In many war-torn countries these weapons have been scattered in farm fields, roads, even around schools and health centers. According to Adopt a Minefield, a UK-based organization, more than 80% of landmine causalities are civilians. Every day women and children are killed by landmines or injured during and after violent conflicts. Besides causing death and injury, landmines prevent people from using their farm lands and they block roads needed to fetch water. Landmines additionally cause village markets to close and communication between different villages to stop. Therefore, people either starve to death or wait for relief aid. But aid is also hampered or blocked entirely by mines in the roads. The Horn of African countries have been infested by landmines. For example, a UN Mine Action Center survey indicated that the rural and nomadic people in Ethiopia and Eritrea are highly affected by landmines and unexploded ordinance left from long-lasting struggle of Eritrea for independence, Ethiopia's conflict with neighboring countries and the recent conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The report states that there are around 6,295victims of mine accidents in those two countries. Making the land safe and available for farming and grazing is even more challenging. This is yet another way in which armed conflict intensifies the effects of drought and causes famine.

Running away from conflict and persecution, leaving their home and land, many people become refugees in neighboring countries. According to a 2004 UNHCR report the total number of refugees reached to 9.2 million in the world.[9] Food aid, health care and human rights protection are the basic needs of refugees. Often it is beyond the capacity of host countries to provide such assistance. It even becomes challenging to humanitarian organizations and UNHCR. Hence, people at refugee settlement areas are exceptionally susceptible to famine. Relief aid is sometimes looted by rival groups which make humanitarian assistance additionally difficult. For instance, in the early 1990s in Somalia, fighting and looting made providing humanitarian assistance very difficult. As a result, many people died from famine, unable to obtain aid.

Attempts to Address the Problem:

If drought contributes to conflict and conflict has the potential to cause famine, what attempts have been done to address the problem? What mechanisms have been developed? How are such efforts integrated with peacebuilding?

Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)

One response to the problem of drought and famine was IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. IGAD is a regional grouping of the Horn-Eastern African Countries of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. It has its head office in Djibouti. It was established in 1986 by heads of the member states with a narrow mandate to address the severe drought and other natural disasters that caused widespread famine in the region. Initially, as a result of its limited role and focused program area, IGAD did not address conflict and related issues. In addition, some organizational and structural problems made the organization ineffective.

Yet the many conflicts in the region made efforts to address the problems of drought and famine more difficult. Internal conflicts in Sudan, the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia, the civil war that led to the collapse of Somalia and other conflicts around border areas among neighboring countries all contributed to suffering and famine. Establishing an organization that could address the conflicts of the region was very vital. Although the former IGAD served as a forum for states to discuss issues related to drought, no state has dared to raise the question of resolving conflicts or differences.

In 1995 the heads of member States and governments decided to rejuvenate the organization into a regional political, economic, security, trade and development entity.[10] At a regional summit in 1996, council ministers endorsed a plan to enhance regional cooperation in the areas of conflict prevention, management and resolution, humanitarian affairs, food security, environmental protection, and economic cooperation and integration. The organization's name officially changed to IGAD.[11]

The presence and potentially threatening inter- and intrastate, communal and clan-based conflicts in the region were the main reasons that forced member states to expand IGAD's vision and mission. IGAD has been successful in mediating the Sudanese conflict, which resulted in the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 between the Sudanese government and the Southern People's Libration Army (SPLA). In addition, IGAD was involved in initiating the Somalia peace talks which later were able to provide a framework for a five-year transitional government in Somalia.

The Conflict Early Warning and Response (CEWARN) Mechanism was born out of the new IGAD in 2002. Its objectives are to:

  • support member states to prevent cross border pastoral conflicts,
  • to enable local communities to play an important role in preventing violent conflicts,
  • to enable the IGAD secretariat to pursue conflict prevention initiatives and
  • to provide members technical and financial support (IGAD).

So far through CEWARN, IGAD is working on capacity-building and awareness about early warning signs of conflict.

Since 2004, IGAD has developed a project that targets pastoral communities of Southwestern Ethiopia, Northwestern Kenya, southeastern Sudan and North Eastern Uganda that is named the Karamoja Cluster. Armed conflict in the cluster is increasing tremendously. According to baseline reports of CEWARN, adverse climatic conditions have been aggravated by violent incidents in the area. Further, the crisis caused unusual migratory movements of people and ongoing competition for scare resources (CEWARN). Interestingly, CEWARN mentioned that some peace initiatives are underway. However, none have succeeded, and the conflict has renewed. Apart from analyzing the Karamoja conflict, CEWARN has made recommendations to responsible bodies that include the local communities and respective governments. The CEWARN project again illustrates the argument that there is a direct relationship between drought and conflict and it is impossible to solve one problem without addressing both.


Drought, famine, and conflict are highly interlinked. None of the problems can be solved without addressing the others.

Key aspects of drought response include:

  1. Build an Early Warning System.

    Developing a strong early warning system for drought and desertification is crucial. It should be adopted at local, national, and regional levels.

  2. Strengthen Intergovernmental Cooperation

    States should strength cooperation among neighboring countries to combat drought and prevent conflicts. Furthermore, building networks and collaboration with various actors in the area helps to tackle problems of drought and conflict. For instance, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification has recommended research on "drought and desertification, identifying causal factors both natural and human, addressing specific needs of local populations and enhancing local knowledge, skills, and know how." This, they say, is an important area of collaboration.

  3. Add Greater Capacity and Preparation to Traditional Mechanisms

    Building the capacity and preparation of traditional mechanisms for combating drought is a third key factor. Some of the traditional mechanisms are collecting/harvesting rainwater in man-made ponds, diversifying grazing lands, and planting trees such as Cassava that adopt to dry climates. In addition, strengthening and empowering traditional conflict resolving mechanism contributes to building relationship among and across communities, which diminishes the frequency and intensity of armed conflict, and encourages cooperative solutions to other problems-for instance, drought and famine.

[1] "UN Warns World on Africa Drought." BBC News. 23 Feb 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4744812. stm.

[2] "Kenya Drought 'worsens conflict'." BBC News. 6 Feb 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/afr ica/4684766.stm .

[3] Keen, David. The Benefits of Famine: A Political Economy of Famine and Relief in Southwestern Sudan, 1983-1989. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994. 4.

[4] Edkins, Jenny. Whose Hunger?: Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. 20.

[5] Ibid. 20.

[6] Keen. 228.

[7] von Braun, Joachim, Teklu Tesfaye, and Webb Patrick. Famine in Africa: Causes, Responses and Prevention. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999. 18.

[8] Biles, Peter. "War and Drought in the Horn." BBC News. 24 May 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/afri ca/762235.stm.< /p>

[9] UNHRC. "Refugees by the Numbers (2005 Edition)." 8 Jul 2005. http://www.unhcr .org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/basics/opendoc.htm?tbl=BASICS&id=3b028097c#Refugees.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Additional Resources



Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)


The Conflict Early Warning and Response (CEWARN) Mechanism in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)


United Nation Convention to Combat Desertification

http://www.un ccd.int/convention/text/c onvention.php?annexNo=-3#art17

"The UN Mine Action Service 2006", United Nation Mine Action Center

Available at: http://www.mineaction.org/



World Food Program. "WFP Warns Kenya Drought Will Lead to Human Tragedy." 5 Mar, 2006. Available at: http://www.wfp.org/englis h/? ModuleID=137&Key=1987. [Accessed 28-02-06]