YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – From Sudan and Somalia to Ethiopia and northern Kenya, east Africa these days is a region in crisis, with Catholic experts describing it as caught in a lethal vise formed on one side by war and on the other by extreme weather events.

Both climate change and conflict, including the seemingly far-off war in Ukraine, are fueling one of the world’s most severe food crises, according to officials from Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas charitable and development arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

“The war in Ukraine triggered a series of events across East Africa. It caused a rise in prices of key commodities that are imported from Ukraine, most notably on imported wheat and food oil,” said Shaun Ferris, CRS’ Senior Technical Advisor.

“The war also significantly raised prices of fertilizer from Ukraine and Russia and there was a spike in fuel prices,” Ferris said.

In an exclusive interview with Crux, Ferris and Gina Castillo, CRS’ Climate Policy and Research Advisor, spoke to the various crises afflicting several countries across East Africa.

The following are excerpts of that interview.

Crux: How serious is the food crisis in each of these countries?

Ferris: The food crisis continues to be a major concern in the region, with significant challenges in Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya.

In Sudan, ongoing conflict is causing catastrophic market failures and leading to increasing food insecurity. Sudan was receiving significant food support through CRS and the World Food Programme (WFP) over the past 3-4 years, but the inability of most humanitarian agencies to operate in conflict zones will lead to a rapid deterioration across the country.

Recent fighting in eastern Sudan and the looting of WFP warehouses will lead to major food insecurity in some regions. The combination of a lack of food, market failure, and the collapse of the finance sector will also have profound effects on the upcoming planting season. The ongoing conflict is likely to reduce crop production and prevent the import and distribution of food as 2024 progresses.

More than 7 million people in Sudan have already fled their communities because of conflict. If conflict continues in major farming areas and disrupts planting, that number is only going to increase. People won’t have any options for food. They’ll have to leave.

South Sudan is suffering from high levels of acute food insecurity. There are varying levels of food insecurity across the country, but overall, a majority of people in South Sudan are not getting enough food. Countries around the world are investing less in aid for South Sudan because of the current political stalemate, resulting in decreased food aid and less support for farmers. Sadly, the levels of food insecurity are likely to increase.

Somalia, as with many countries that suffered due to drought in the past three years of La Niña, is now suffering from severe rains and floods because of the flip to El Niño. In October and November, parts of the country received 4-5 times the amount of rain that comes in a normal year, which caused some severe flash flooding. It also impacted food prices.

In parts of Somalia, we saw food prices increase anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. We do believe all the rain will help crop production throughout this current dry season, which runs from January to March. However, while there should be strong crops, it will take farmers in Somalia several seasons to rebuild their herds, as millions of farm animals died in the recent drought.

In Ethiopia, the food security situation in the central and western highland areas is recovering with improved rains. However, in the northern Tigray area, food security is still affected by the recovery from the conflict. Food aid in this region is just restarting and must ramp up quickly.

In southeastern Ethiopia, largely cattle farming areas, the recovery has also been slow due to severe flooding in October and November. The rainfall over these two months was recorded at 300 percent higher than normal. The flooding also pushed more than 630,000 people from their homes and killed more than 20,000 farm animals.

Food prices in the country remain high – 100 percent higher than three-year average – because of poor harvests and the high cost of fuel. Thankfully, food aid is starting to flow again, and if it expands to the levels we were seeing prior to the fighting, it will relieve some of the pressure on the most vulnerable regions.

Heavy El Niño rains in Kenya during the October to December rainy season have, in general, led to a recovery in Kenya’s agricultural sector, with some mixed effects across the country. The rains have increased production in the more traditionally highly productive areas of central and western Kenya. Increased rains in central Kenya have improved livestock production of food like milk, but the rains caused flooding across more than 1 million acres of land, displacing more than 50,000 people in the farming communities.

Recovery from these floods will be slower than normal years because of the massive loss of livestock to drought over the past 3 years.

In what ways has the war in Ukraine impacted food supply in East Africa?

Ferris: The war in Ukraine triggered a series of events across East Africa. It caused a rise in prices of key commodities that are imported from Ukraine, most notably on imported wheat and food oil.

The war also significantly raised prices of fertilizer from Ukraine and Russia and there was a spike in fuel prices. These factors put pressure on foreign exchange reserves, which were unable to support the import needs.

In East Africa, this has restricted food and fertilizer imports, which in turn reduces food production and availability. Other countries have stepped in to meet the increased food need, but they are doing so at higher prices. The food security situation in East Africa is still under real pressure, and people here are going to continue to face much higher prices for all goods.

You have identified climate change as one of the factors driving hunger in the region. How would you describe the situation of climate change in East Africa and what has been the impact on people and livestock?

Ferris: The effect of climate change is most apparent in the more vulnerable farming areas of East Africa, but it has been the compound effects of climate change, conflict, global food prices, and fuel spikes has degraded the resilience of the region.

Poverty has increased in the region and people in the more marginal areas are facing a slow rate of recovery to get back to where they were in 2020. The fate of millions of people is more precarious as after 3 years of drought, they are now facing extreme rainfall and flooding.

It is likely that in the next rains between March and May will be higher than normal, so the potential for rivers to overflow is high. If that happens, farmers in East Africa won’t be able to stop floods from destroying their crops. They will have to wait for the rains to stop and hope that some crops can be produced with the leftover water from the flooding.

If climate change continues to drive more severe weather conditions, and if extreme weather events are exacerbated by the bouncing back and forth between El Niño and La Niña, then farming conditions will continue to deteriorate, risks will increase, and food insecurity will increase.

The impact of the 2021 – 2023 drought was devastating for livestock farmers. Millions of livestock died because of the lack of water, and the recovery period for these farmers will take years. Many of them lost as much as 80 percent of their animals, and some even lost their entire herd. They’ll need to rebuild their breeding stock and then retain all the offspring.

It’s going to be a lot of work for them to recover, and this will trickle down to consumers. Meat prices are going to remain high for several years. If another drought or flood event are avoided, prices may eventually decrease, but it won’t be for a while.

Is there hope that decisions taken at the COP28 in Dubai may help people cope with climate change effects in the region?

Castillo: COP28 sent an important signal with the agreement of countries to transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, making it clear that the end of the fossil fuel era has arrived.

When it comes to East Africa, there were some important new signals at COP28 related to finance, which is critical to support the region’s adaptation efforts. There was recognition that adaptation finance needs to be effectively doubled by 2025, far beyond what developed countries have already committed.

COP28 also increased pressure to reform the international financial system – it recognized the connection between a country’s financial health and its ability to invest in climate action.

Finally, the agreement by governments at COP28 to operationalize a Loss and Damage Fund is a source of hope, given that the impacts of climate change are happening now, and countries need financial assistance to recover.  So far, over $700 million has been pledged. It’s not enough, but it’s a start, and now we must focus on ensuring that the international community keeps contributing to the fund long-term.

How concerned are you that the combined effects of climate change and hunger could trigger conflict in the region?

Ferris: This is an important but complicated question, as there are many factors that may interact with each over several years, and even decades, that eventually trigger conflict. There is increasing evidence, for example, that major climatic events are causing significant loss in agricultural markets and that food insecurity is one of the triggers of conflict.

There is not a simple, straight line between any one factor (such as climate change, inflation, commodity prices, security, or food security) with conflict. However, combining these factors will put increased and potentially acute pressure on people’s lives, and this may exacerbate existing political and economic fault lines.

At the local level, there are rising tensions between resource-poor farmers and pastoralists in need of feed and water. As seasons change, this regularly leads to local tensions over access to resources and as many actors are armed, this can spill over into conflicts between communities. Most of these types of challenges are dealt with through local governance structures, but in more severe cases through government and military security forces. These are generally seasonal conflicts and are contained. More widespread or national level conflicts are typically the result of longer-term political tensions and disputes between factions within countries.

It is clear from weather data that extreme weather events are now more regular, and more severe in East Africa than they have been in the past. These increasingly severe climate-induced weather events, such as droughts and flash flooding, strain the food production of countries, often increasing food insecurity.

High levels of hunger mean high levels of stress, not only for individuals and families, but also for the overall economic well-being of a country. The recovery from these extreme weather events is often slow, and if the pace of recovery is too slow, then people will often choose to migrate. Migration can cause even more stress on those who are leaving, as well on the countries and communities that accept newcomers.

So, while it is currently not easy to point to climate change as a direct and singular cause of conflict, it can certainly lay the foundation for conflict. Concerns are rising about increasing conflict caused by multiple factors including climate change, but we have not reached a tipping point yet. For many communities, we may be travelling towards that point.

What was CRS’ level of involvement in trying to resolve these multiple crises in the region in 2023, and what are your plans for 2024?

Ferris: In 2023, CRS worked across several different countries in East Africa at three different levels.

First, we have been working hand in hand to help communities that are suffering from disasters, whether those are caused by conflict, extreme weather, or other events like economic collapse. We are on the ground to provide immediate support by distributing cash, food, clean water, farming supplies like seeds, or shelter. In 2023, these lifesaving interventions supported millions across the region. Because of the 5 consecutive failed rains, this past year had the worst drought on record, and our emergency operations reflected that.

Secondly, this past year CRS provided resilience and recovery support to millions of people in East Africa who rebuilt their farms, their livestock herds, and their small businesses after a disaster. When it comes to helping people rebuild their lives, we distribute cash, help farmers access seeds and tools, as well as work with local leaders to build up knowledge and skills that will help stabilize a community for the long-term.

And lastly, there are areas in East Africa that are stable, did not experience any disasters, and needed development-level support to become self-reliant and increase their levels of food security on their own. These communities often need connections to markets to sell their goods and increase incomes, which means a more prosperous and productive future for the next generation.

In 2024, as we enter a shift in climatic condition – a shift from La Niña (which causes drought in East Africa) to El Niño (which causes flooding) – there will be calls for different types of support. CRS will continue to support those communities in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and whenever possible to transition our response toward recovery, stabilization and growth.