The international community held an emergency meeting in Rome Monday on the famine and drought in the Horn of Africa. Representatives from the G20, U.N. agencies and NGOs warned the crisis could spread if action is not taken now.
In parts of Somalia, drought, high food prices and conflict have combined to bring famine.
“Famine is not a word we use lightly. The last time we did so in Somalia was 19 years ago,” said Valarie Amos is U.N. Under-Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator.
She added, “Famine reflects extreme food shortages, severe malnutrition on a massive scale and spiraling mortality rates. We must respond now before thousands more lose their lives. This is the gravest food crisis in the world and the numbers are getting worse.”
The U.N. estimates the food crisis in the Horn of Africa is affecting 12 million people.
While famine has been declared in two Somali regions – Lower Shabelle and southern Bakool – Amos warns it could quickly spread to the rest of southern Somalia and neighboring countries.
“This will not be a short crisis. The United Nations and its partners fully expect to be dealing with this situation for at least the next six months,” said Amos.
The urgency of the Somali situation was stressed by Mohamed Ibrahim, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government.
“The U.N. estimates that more than 3.5 million Somalis – the vast majority in the insurgent held areas – may starve to death unless emergency aid reaches them in the next few weeks,” he said.
World Food Program Executive Director Josette Sheeran saw firsthand the effects of what she calls “soaring malnutrition rates.” She says she toured drought ravaged areas in the Horn with Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, who called the crisis “the children’s famine.”
Sheeran said, “I literally saw dozens of children who will not make it. And many of the mothers I talked to have had to leave children along the road, who were too weak to make it, and decide to try to save the others. Others died in their arms and they left them on the roadside.”
The World Food program is airlifting emergency supplies to the region. Parts of countries bordering Somalia are also in crisis, although famine has not been declared there. Not yet.
“This is not the first time the rains have failed. And it will not be the last. In this part of the world, drought is becoming ever more frequent. And with drought come hunger, desperation, disease and death,” said Kanayo Nwanze, head of IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Nwanze said many people around the world are no longer able to cope with recurring droughts and floods, which he blames on climate change. He says greater food resilience is needed. This includes using drought resistant seeds and crops, better water management and agricultural methods.
Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive Director of Oxfam Great Britain, agrees. She said long term solutions are needed to save pastoralists, many of whom have lost most or all of their livestock to drought. This includes the drilling of boreholes.
Stocking said bringing in emergency food supplies to stem hunger, malnutrition and starvation is vitally important. But there’s something else that can be done, as well.
“If you want to feed people today, the best way to do that is actually to provide them with cash or vouchers for food that they can buy food right now. And this is perfectly possible even in Somalia. After all, Somalia is a country that has $2 billion a year coming into it in remittances and a whole system of means in which money can get into the hands of people,” she said.
World Food Program chief Sheeran says the crisis in the Horn of Africa would have been even worse if not for the early warning system and quick response programs established over the years. The worst areas now, she says, are those not covered by that safety net.
“This crisis demonstrates how critical global, regional, national and community action [are] on food security from sustainable increases in food production to eradicating the scourge of hunger and malnutrition permanently from the human experience. I truly believe this is doable.
Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jacques Diouf says the “catastrophic situation requires massive international support,” including bolstering the agricultural sector and investing in rural development.