Children suffering dire drought across parts of Africa are ‘one disease away from catastrophe’ – warns UNICEF

Number of drought-hit people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia without reliable access to safe water has risen from 9.5 million to 16.2 million in the space of five months, meanwhile children in the Sahel also facing extremely high levels of water vulnerability

22 August 2022
A boy collect water from a dried up river.

NEW YORK/NAIROBI/DAKAR, 23 August 2022 – Children in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel could die in devastating numbers unless urgent support is provided, as severe malnutrition and the risk of water-borne disease collide – UNICEF warns during World Water Week.

“History shows that when high levels of severe acute malnutrition in children combine with deadly outbreaks of diseases like cholera or diarrhoea, child mortality rises dramatically – and tragically. When water either isn’t available or is unsafe, the risks to children multiply exponentially,” said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. “Across the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, millions of children are just one disease away from catastrophe.”

The number of drought-hit people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia without reliable access to safe water rose from 9.5 million in February to 16.2 million in July, putting children and their families in increased danger of contracting illnesses like cholera and diarrhoea1

In Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, drought, conflict and insecurity are driving water insecurity, with 40 million children facing high to extremely high levels of water vulnerability2. Already more children die as a result of unsafe water and sanitation in the Sahel than in any other part of the world, according to the latest WHO data

Most people in the Horn of Africa rely on water delivered by vendors on trucks or donkey carts. In areas worst hit by drought, water is no longer affordable for many families3.

  • In Kenya, 23 counties have seen significant price hikes topped by Mandera at 400 per cent and Garissa by 260 per cent compared to January 2021.
  • In Ethiopia, the cost of water in June this year has doubled in Oromia and increased by 50 per cent in Somali compared to the onset of the drought in October 2021.  
  • In Somalia, average water prices climbed 85 per cent in South-Mudug, and 55 and 75 per cent respectively in Buurhakaba and Ceel Berde, compared to prices in January 2022.

More than 2.8 million children across both regions are already suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which means they are up to 11 times more at risk of dying from water-borne diseases than well-nourished children. 

In Somalia, outbreaks of acute watery diarrhoea and cholera have been reported in almost all drought-affected districts, with the 8,200 cases reported between January and June, more than double the number of cases reported during the same period last year.

Almost two-thirds of those affected are children under the age of five. Between June 2021 and June 2022, UNICEF and partners treated more than 1.2 million cases of diarrhoea in children under the age of five in the worst drought-hit regions of Ethiopia – Afar, Somalia, SNNP and Oromia. In Kenya, over 90 per cent of open water sources – such as ponds and open wells - in drought-affected areas are either depleted or dried up, posing serious risk of disease outbreak.

Across the Sahel, water availability has also dropped by more than 40 per cent in the last 20 years due to climate change and complex factors such as conflict, putting millions of children and families at increased risk of waterborne diseases. Just last year, West and Central Africa marked the region's worst cholera outbreak in the last six years, including 5,610 cases and 170 deaths in Central Sahel.  

UNICEF is providing life-saving aid and resilient multisectoral services to children and their families in dire need across the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, including improving access to climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene services, drilling for reliable sources of groundwater and developing the use of solar systems, identifying and treating children with malnutrition, and scaling up prevention services.

UNICEF’s appeal to improve families’ long-term resilience in the Horn of Africa region – and stop drought devastating lives for years to come – is currently just 3 per cent funded. Of that, almost no money has been received for the section devoted to water, sanitation and climate resilience. The appeal for the Central Sahel region to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families with water, sanitation, and hygiene programmes is only 22 per cent funded.

“Imagine having to choose between buying bread or buying water for a hungry, thirsty child who is already sick, or between watching your child suffer from extreme thirst or letting them drink contaminated water that can cause killer diseases,” said Russell. “Families across drought-impacted regions are being forced into impossible choices. The only way to stop this crisis is for governments, donors, and the international community to step up funding to meet children’s most acute needs, and provide long-term flexible support to break the cycle of crisis.”  


Notes to editors:

1 Water security capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socioeconomic development, for ensuring protection against waterborne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability. Water insecurity occurs when any or all of these needs cannot be met.

2 Water vulnerability relates to physical water scarcity risks (baseline water stress; inter and seasonal variability; groundwater decline and droughts) and the water service level.

3 Sources include WASH cluster reports, vendors, and anecdotal evidence from affected communities.

Media contacts

Sara Alhattab
Tel: +1 917 957 6536
Alicia Jones
UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa (Nairobi)
Tel: +254 724 322 162


UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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About World Water Week

World Water Week is the leading conference on global water issues, held every year since 1991. The non-profit event is co-created with leading organizations and attracts a diverse mix of participants from many different professional backgrounds and every corner of the world. Together, we develop solutions to the world’s greatest water-related challenges, with topics ranging from food security and health to agriculture, technology, biodiversity, and the climate crisis.