The most severe drought in a century is threatening a continent — and could cause mass migration

As hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing their impoverished home countries pour across the Sahara, an increasingly catastrophic drought is shrinking swaths of Africa, drying up water supplies and causing famine.

Drought and famine have periodically plagued sub-Saharan Africa, but the 2016 and 2017 droughts took a multibillion-dollar toll on affected countries and even threatened to topple governments and create migration crises.

As of July 1, an estimated 2.3 million people had died from hunger or lack of water since the start of the year, according to the International Monetary Fund. The United Nations was already grappling with an emergency earlier this year for South Sudan, one of the world’s youngest countries.

For some southern and central African countries, this year’s dry spell is the worst in a century.

In Somalia, which sits along one of the main transit routes used by migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa to Europe, the risk of an already severe drought becoming a full-blown famine has risen sharply over the past few months.

Somalia is accustomed to devastating droughts, caused by long droughts as well as droughts that come in the middle of long rains. When rain stops in the rainy season due to above-average temperatures, water gets scarce, and the land dries out. Conditions can cause crop losses of between 50 and 80 percent, depending on the region.

But drought experts say the current drought has been so unusually intense that they cannot pinpoint the cause.

“It really has been one of the worst droughts on record,” said Peter Cooke, a research associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The crops that have survived are never going to be harvested.”

Though conditions in some parts of the Horn of Africa, Africa and the Middle East have improved, severe drought is still on the verge of the Middle East, he said.

In Libya, whose poverty-stricken economy has been destabilized by the rise of the Islamic State and the country’s previous civil war, drought may be even more devastating. Already bedeviled by a spate of civil conflicts, the country has been crippled by international sanctions.

Earlier this month, after reading the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and trying to imagine the devastating effects of a similar drought in its heartland, Cooke traveled to the eastern Libyan town of Sabratha.

There, he and his team met local leaders who said they were the first to spot a large decrease in the water table. As those saltier waters drained away, salty and cloudy ponds and lakes dried up. As the water evaporated, animals wandered out into the desert, where they died.

As well as contributing to the risk of an outbreak of West Nile fever, the drought has drained underground aquifers, undermining the only irrigation system the small farming community has. All the time, as the water has disappeared, local leaders say electricity shortages have dramatically increased.

Without proper access to power, pumps and agricultural systems, the region’s livestock die and individuals become too weak to feed themselves. Some migrate, heading to Libya in search of economic opportunity in the North African country.

The number of people internally displaced by the drought is expected to hit about 200,000 in June, according to the United Nations.

“We thought people would be wearing scarves, hats and clothes indoors,” said Hassan Farah, the president of a local association for drought victims. “But it’s getting hotter. It’s becoming very humid.

“The problem is that we have very little food,” he said. “No means of bringing in food except firewood,” he said. “Some people have no arrows in their chests.”

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