Behind the Horn of Africa famine

By Pei Guangjiang in Dadaab and Wang Zhaokun in Beijing Source:Global Times Published: 2011-9-2 3:09:00

A doctor examines a child suffering from malnutrition at the Ifo hospital in the Dadaab refugee camp. Photo: Pei Guangjiang

It is morning in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp in eastern Kenya, 100 kilometers west of the Somalian border.

Hundreds of refugees are lining up for food after arriving here by walking for weeks to flee drought, civil conflict and famine in Somalia.

"We walked for 15 days. We sold almost all our belongings for food and sometimes we had to beg," Dayah, a refugee, told the Global Times.

Dayah is from a small town near Somalia's capital of Mogadishu. Although the country has been engulfed in war for 20 years, the recent drought and famine finally drove Dayah and his family away from their hometown.

Refugee and food crisis

This year has seen the Horn of Africa hit by a drought that has triggered a severe food crisis across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The UN estimates that about 11.3 million people are in need of food assistance in the region, declaring a state of famine for the first time in nearly 30 years.

"Every family will get food rations for 21 days upon their arrival at Dadaab," William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told the Global Times.

Spindler said the Dadaab Refugee Camp was already home to more than 400,000 refugees, with around 1,300 more arriving each day. The camp was originally designed to hold 90,000.

The UNHCR has 1,500 employees in Dadaab, and all are working overtime, but Spindler says the organizations needs more workers and food.

Drought not sole cause of famine

The vulnerable environment of the Horn of Africa contributes to the crisis as the lowlands of East Africa suffer regular droughts.

Rain falls only once every five years here, but every 20 to 25 years, a wide drought consumes the entire region threatening the pastoral communities, according to David M Anderson, professor of African politics at the University of Oxford.

However, analysts say media estimates of this being the worst drought for 60 years may be exaggerated due to there being more fundamental causes at play.

"I was in Ethiopia this May and June in the northwest of the country, where the rains have been rather good for the past few years," James McCann, director of the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Term Future, told the Global Times.

One major reason why the drought's impact has been worse than before is that the traditional flexible strategies for pastoralists in the Horn to respond to the food crisis, such as moving to seasonal grazing land, no longer work as well, McCann noted.

"Famine is not a natural consequence of drought, but it is the structure of human society which often determines who is affected and to what degree," William Moseley, a professor of geography and African studies at Macalester College, told the Global Times.

He stressed herders in the region are less adaptable to variable rainfall conditions because since the colonial period, their traditional recourse of storing surplus crops to stave off drought has been undermined by market-oriented farming and the expansion of commercial farms.

"Households were encouraged (if not coerced by taxation) to grow cash crops for the market and store less excess grain for bad years," Moseley noted. "This increasing market orientation was also encouraged by development banks."

The civil strife also exacerbated the crisis in the Horn of Africa.

McCann said the conflict severely reduced the pastoralist ability to move as a coping device and receive remittances from abroad.

The civil strife in Somalia has also been hindering the relief work of the UNHCR, according to Spindler.

Al-Shabab, the Islamist military group that controls large swathes of south and central Somalia, imposed a ban on foreign aid agencies in its territories in 2009. This has driven aid workers away in some areas whilst the group's fighters have often levied taxes on relief food and money at will.

Longer-term solution

The UN says $2.5 billion is needed to aid the millions starving in the Horn of Africa. So far countries including China, the US, Britain, Brazil and Turkey have all pledged funds for the relief work.

In August, Chinese Premier Premier Wen Jiabao declared an additional $55.28 million in aid to East African countries when meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Beijing. The Chinese government had earlier already announced emergency food aid of about $14 million destined for the area.

The US Agency for International Development said Tuesday it would send an additional $23 million for famine relief.

However, UNHCR and UN World Food Program officials at Dadaab said international aid pledged to date still falls short of their expectations and that more countries need to step in.

"Food is needed, but relief is no solution in the longer term. The question was one of poverty and lack of ‘entitlements' to food," McCann said. "Political disruptions meant that the food was not distributed due to lack of roads, local violence, rural poverty."

Anderson believes that if the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments better manage resources, food deficits could disappear there but that the lack of an effective government in Somalia makes the problem far more severe.

"The international community could have done more to ensure that the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya gave greater priority to this problem," he said.

The international community has been trying to promote a "New Green Revolution" in East Africa to address the food crisis, involving improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.

Nevertheless, Moseley argued that while the approach may make sense in some contexts, it is "financially out of reach" for the poorest farmers, who are most likely to suffer from famine.

"A more realistic strategy is to plant imported seeds and commercial agriculture in favor of enhanced traditional approaches to produce food for the family and local markets," he said.

Posted in: Africa

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