Hunger in the Horn of Africa
A terrible drought has brought the shadow of famine back to Africa
Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition
BLOATED bellies with stick arms and legs; huge eyes staring out of skeletal heads; gaunt mothers trying to suckle babies on withered breasts. The world thought it might never see such scenes again. Famine in Africa, absent for many years, appeared to have gone the way of diseases for which we now have cures or vaccines.
Yet, after the worst drought in 60 years, more than 10m people in the Horn of Africa need emergency food aid. Livestock have been annihilated. Hundreds of thousands of people are streaming into refugee camps in search of help. Malnutrition rates in some areas are five times more severe than the threshold aid agencies use to define a crisis. Many children are already dying of starvation.
The areas most affected by the drought are northern Kenya, south-eastern Ethiopia, southern Somalia and Djibouti. The region’s last two rainy seasons were meagre. Rivers and boreholes are running dry, crops failing, traditional grazing land turning to dust. Up to 60% of cattle and goat herds, the main assets for many of the worst-affected people, have perished, their corpses and skeletons littering the plains.
In areas lucky enough to have a little green, armed herders are violently competing for dwindling resources. In Kenya alone more than 100 herders have been killed so far this year.
“In some areas we are close to famine, a situation we have not seen for 25 years,” says Gabriella Waaijman, east Africa head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “We are currently in the emergency phase, which precedes famine, and it is bound to get worse.” American aid officials talk of “the most severe food-security emergency in the world today”. Kenya has declared the drought a national disaster. Oxfam, a British-based international aid agency, launched its biggest-ever emergency appeal to deal with the crisis.
Yet no one can say they were not warned. OCHA has been sending out famine alerts for the region since last year, begging for funds. But Western donors, hamstrung by the effects of the financial crisis, have been slow (or reluctant) to respond. Of the $1.6 billion required in emergency humanitarian aid, only half has been provided, with no new funding in the pipeline, Ms Waaijman says. This has forced organisations like the UN’s World Food Programme to make cuts at a time when they should have been expanding.
Soaring world food prices have made matters worse. In Somalia the cost of sorghum, the local staple, has risen 240% since last October. In Kenya the price of maize has tripled. Food hoarding is reportedly aggravating shortages—even where rain has been plentiful.
Parts of Kenya have recently had a bumper harvest, leaving NGOs to wonder why the government’s strategic grain reserves are so low. An estimated 3.5m Kenyans are in urgent need of food. So are 350,000 refugees in the disastrously overcrowded Dadaab camp near the border with Somalia.
Who is to blame? An oscillation in the climate in the form of La Niña—a cooling of the surface temperature across the equatorial eastern-central Pacific, causing big changes in airflow and weather patterns—is likely to have contributed to the droughts.
But humans too play a part. “This is a preventable disaster and solutions are possible,” says Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s humanitarian director. It is no coincidence that the worst-affected areas are also the poorest in the region. Long-term investment could have made villages and towns more resilient.
from the print edition | Middle East & Africa