The Link Between Water Scarcity and Famine 

The Link Between Water Scarcity and Famine

Famine is defined as “an extreme scarcity of food”. Yet increasingly, regions suffering from famine conditions are also suffering from water shortages.

Water and sanitation are just as important as food for children facing famine and food insecurity.

Continue reading to discover how a lack of clean water and sanitation can turn a crisis situation, like famine, into a catastrophe. 

Illness and Malnutrition

The climate crisis is exacerbating drought conditions in the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions. Five consecutive rainy seasons have failed, leaving millions without water.

When drought strikes its effects are widespread and devastating. A lack of water causes crops to fail and rivers to run dry. It causes livestock to die and children to starve. 

When water becomes scarce, child malnutrition rates are known to increase. Children already weakened by hunger are more susceptible to waterborne diseases like diarrhoea and cholera. Dirty drinking water can make a malnourished child extremely ill and prevent their bodies from getting the nutrients they need to survive.

“No matter how much food a malnourished child eats, he or she will not get better if the water they are drinking is not safe,” says Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Director of Emergency Programmes.


Extreme weather events like droughts and floods can deplete or contaminate water supplies. When this happens, the water supplies that entire communities rely on are threatened.

Families in areas of extreme water stress often have to compete for scarce or unsafe water sources. This drives people from their homes in search of fresh, clean drinking water. 

Displaced persons are more vulnerable to abuse, risk and disease. Makeshift camps set up without toilets become hotspots for disease outbreaks. Children who are already weak from hunger are more susceptible to infection and life-threatening illnesses. 

Today more than 8 million people are displaced across the famine-threatened Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia alone an estimated 4.2 million people have fled their homes in search of food and water. 

Child Protection 

When families are displaced and living in emergency camps they are at increased risk of abuse. Women and children are especially vulnerable as they will spend more time alone collecting water and food, leaving them open to violence. 

Young girls are also at increased risk of child marriage during crisis situations. As families struggle to provide for their children, marriage is seen as one solution to their problems. Girls are often married-off in the hope that their new husband will be able to provide for them. 

Water and food scarcity forces parents to make heartbreaking decisions and rob girls of the future they deserve.  

You can help today by donating now to help deliver clean drinking water to children most in need. €50 provides enough safe, clean water to keep 3 children healthy and safe.

Help protect children
UNICEF | for every child

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