Horn of Africa – Famine in the making

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The Horn of Africa is vast and diverse region. However, arid and semi-arid lands cover great swathe of its surface. With the exception of the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands, much of the Horn is at the mercy of a fragile weather pattern that can easily transform semi-deserts capable of sustaining stock grazing into a land void of water and life. For centuries the people living there have learnt to read the signs of the time, i.e. they know weather patterns and found ways to cope with them. In the past, drought were experienced routinely, rarely did they turn into widespread famine.

The drought the Horn of Africa is experiencing today is nothing new, but new are the conditions that led to the present tragedy. The region is home to about 100m people. It was only 25m fifty years ago. Increased population means increase pressure on the land and natural resources. The current global warming is also affecting rain patterns, with precipitations becoming more erratic and with an increase tendency to flooding.

In the past, the peoples living here adopted various strategies to face these conditions. Pastoralist groups were either nomads or transhumant. They simply moved their herds from pasture to pasture, avoiding overgrazing and accessing water resources on a need basis. They also reserved some areas as bumper zones, to be used only in extreme need. Farmers in the low lands shifted their fields in drought years and kept part of their surplus production to fend off poor harvests. There was interaction between the two groups, with exchange of livestock and produce. Certainly some groups suffered and some would succumb to famine. Yet, all in all, most would go through droughts with minimal losses.

Changes in population, the growth of urbanization, the loss of bumper areas and other factors made the traditional strategy obsolete. Most of all, the lack of security in the Horn of Africa has had a negative effect on the ability to cope with droughts. In the past twenty years, the region has seen major wars and guerrilla warfare in all but two of the countries in the region: Kenya and Djibuti. Somalia has been without a stable government for most of the last two decades. People are unable to tend to their fields and are unsure of harvesting any crop. Bumper crops are something of the past. Likewise, pastoralists are not free to roam around as in the past and they are forced to overgraze their pastures. Water has become scarce as it is wrestled between them and farmers.

Is this enough to explain the present crisis? Certainly not. Especially if we consider that there are instruments in place to give early warnings of looming droughts and famines. USAID, a USA aid agency, runs the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) to provide early warning on emerging and evolving food security issues. FEWS NET releases weekly reports and publishes short and long term forecasts. My personal experience is that this system is highly reliable. There are also other agencies that offer similar services. The warning was sounded early enough even this year. “It is a colossal outrage that the warnings went unheeded, that the lessons of previous famines have been ignored,” says Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam.

In reality, war and insecurity in Somalia is only part of the picture. The problem lies on the political will of the governments involved. Kenya and Ethiopia do have the means to forestall famine in their lands. However, the areas hardest hit are also areas considered marginal if not dangerous by those same governments. As in previous occurrences of food shortage, the government of Kenya seems unwilling to invest much in supporting the Northern regions. The area bordering with Somalia is considered a hotbed of terror groups and fundamentalists. The presence of large concentration of Somali refugees is not appreciated by politicians in Nairobi. If Kenya has always accepted a large influx of refugees from neighbouring countries, one cannot expect this to always happen painlessly. After all, Kenyans know that most of these refugees will not go back to their countries and will eventually trickle down to Nairobi and other urban areas competing for jobs.

 Emergency aid is now reaching most of the 12m people affected by the drought. In the short term, the problem is solved. It is not clear if there is a blueprint for the future. The risk is to create a population dependent on food aid, as it happened in Turkana, in north-western Kenya. There is increasing evidence that helping people become more resilient to the recurring droughts is far more effective than responding after disaster has struck. Helping farmers find alternative livelihood options, or teaching them to grow drought-resistant crops, is far more effective than providing food aid when the harvest has failed. “We have hard evidence that we need only US$ 6 per capita per annum to build up resilience,” said Mohammed Mukhier, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Kanayo F. Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, stressed that building resilience in farming and herding communities required a long-term commitment.

Helping people to become resilient is certainly important. Much more important is to provide peace and security. When a population is afforded that, it will easily find ways to face emergencies.

Joseph Caramazza


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