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How serious is the threat of famine in east Africa?

2011 July 6
by Paul Vallely

Suddenly there is talk of famine in Africa again. Ten million people are at risk of starvation in the worst drought conditions in 60 years in Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. Tens of thousands of people have left their homes in search of water and food. Hundreds of thousands of farm animals have died.

Every day some 1,200 Somalis are crossing the border into Kenya where, near the once little town of Dadaab, the world’s biggest refugee camp, 50 kilometres square, has developed. Many of the children arriving there, after month-long treks across the unyielding desert, are so weak that they are dying despite receiving emergency care. Millions more are hungry and have begun the slow journey to wasting from malnutrition.

Oxfam has just launched its biggest appeal ever for the continent. The head of the United Nations’ humanitarian affairs department, Baroness Amos, yesterday appealed for donor nations to “dig deep” to help.

Except, of course, there is nothing sudden about all of this. It is a creeping disaster and an utterly preventable one.  In April aid agencies warned that 8m people were facing severe food shortages. Nothing was done. Three months later that figure has risen to 10m. Predictions by the international Famine Early Warning Systems Network make clear what will happen by September if the world turns its back. Its food insecurity monitoring has recorded slippage from Stage 2 Chronic to Stage 3 Acute and, for many areas, Stage 4 Emergency. Stage 5 Catastrophe/Famine is next.

The classic first signals have been there for months. Livestock prices have plummeted and cereal prices soared, as they always do ahead of famine. Two-thirds of the population make their living by raising goats, sheep, cattle and camels. Animals are how families accumulate wealth and store savings. When drought comes both water and grazing for animals vanish and they sell for downward spiralling prices.

In January a Somali herdsman had to sell just one goat to buy a 90-kilo bag of maize; today it takes five. The problem has been exacerbated by a worldwide rise in food prices. 

African governments long ago put in place strategic food reserves to cope with such emergencies. These were partially-replenished after a good harvest last year. But they were not rebuilt to optimum levels because they had been so greatly depleted by previous years of successive drought.

The problem is that droughts which once came every decade now come every couple of years. A recent study in the international journal Climate Dynamics suggests that dry conditions in East Africa are set to continue because of climate change. The cold weather phase known as La Niña, the opposing counterpart to the warming El Niño, is likely to dominate now. That will make the region’s rain fall over the sea bringing drought (and floods in southern Africa).

Yet if climate change is unreservedly the fault of the rich world, Africans must take the blame for the other major contributory factor – armed conflict. Somalia is riven with anarchic civil strife, from warlords to Kalashnikov-toting cattle-raiders.

The combination of drought and endemic violence has driven refugees from Somalia and Puntland into Somaliland, Ethiopia and Kenya. The resulting civil chaos has dissuaded the international community from properly funding the World Food Programme to cope with the levels of hunger the drought has produced.

Last year the WFP appealed for $500m to address food insecurity in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Rich donor nations came up with less than half that. They do not need much of an excuse to keep their public purses tightly shut.

Somalia is particularly badly-hit. Hunger is pushing tens of thousands of its people to become refugees in neighbouring countries every week.

Britain has just given £38m towards making good the deficit in WFP funding. The United States is expected to announce more money today. But other nations are dragging their feet. China should contribute. So should oil-rich Arab nations, especially since most of the affected population are Muslims.

There is another problem. Food aid is not enough. Moves must be made to increase productivity in both cereals and livestock. The herders of east Africa need assistance with feeding supplements and vaccinations for their animals, better water and soil conservation techniques and improved species of grasses and shrubs to prevent over-grazing.

The G8 meeting at L’Aquila in 2009 promised $22bn to improve such subsistence agriculture globally and boost food self-sufficiency. The money has not been delivered. Without it the destructive cycle will not be broken which forces hungry pastoralists to sell their means of production – livestock – as part of a short-term survival strategy.

If famine is poised to stalk the dry lands of Africa again it will not be nature that is to blame, but the warlords of Africa and the complacency of the rich West.

One Response
  1. enoch permalink
    July 25, 2011

    Having read your article, I too wonder why the rich oil states of the Arab world do not contribute to the desperately needed aid for their fellow Muslims.

    In Dubai, they are still building for obscene amounts of money more hotels and homes and the individually rich Arab sheiks still continue their profligate life styles. Maybe, to give them the benefit of the doubt they do contribute, but little has been heard and for journalists to bring this to public attention has to be a good thing. There must be some comment in the Koran that states that those who have should give without hesitation to those who have not, and if dying of hunger, then give even more.

    As a human being living in the UK not affiliated to any one religion, but born as a Jew, our small community have for years looked after it’s own. This is encumbent on all Jews to help those who are less able to look after themselves and is paramount amongst all our communities worldwide.

    I do not agree with Israeli politics but since the State was founded our children have been our prime concern. Golda Meir was instrumental in getting the release of a number of children from the camps – when the war was over – being sent to Israel.

    To see so many young ones dying for lack of food is the most heartrending sight I have seen and I cannot believe that the wealth of the Arabs, which they have been blessed with from the Almighty has not been sent in large amounts.

    Us, as human beings should be ashamed that we have allowed this preventable disaster to happen. There are not enough words to express my deep sorrow for the mothers of these tragic children.

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