News / Africa

Experts Look to Past for Clues to Prevent Famine in Horn of Africa

Internally displaced Somali women queue to receive food-aid rations at a distribution center in a displaced persons camp in the Somali capital Mogadishu, on July 26, 2011
Internally displaced Somali women queue to receive food-aid rations at a distribution center in a displaced persons camp in the Somali capital Mogadishu, on July 26, 2011

As famine threatens areas of Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa, food security experts are looking for lessons from severe droughts of the past, when worst case scenarios were avoided.  Their examples range from recent years to pre-colonial times.

Food security experts say Africa's famines have become more frequent as the world economy has grown more connected.

Human environment and development geographer William Moseley of Macalester College in the northern U.S. state of Minnesota, says that before late-19th century colonization, many people in Africa had more effective coping mechanisms to deal with recurring droughts.

"At the community level or the household level, they would store grain.  And a big change with colonialism is the introduction of cash crops and more export orientation and less saving of grain.  So we begin to see more famines linked to drought in the colonial period," Moseley said.

After a drought-induced famine across Africa's Sahel region in the early 1970s, the World Food Conference in 1974 promised that within a decade no child on the continent would go hungry.  Warning systems were put in place to forecast devastating droughts.  But in the 1980s, deadly famines hit Uganda and Ethiopia.

Experts say the warning systems failed to take into account that having enough food in a country does not prevent famine when large segments of the population are blocked from it due to conflict, or are too poor to afford it.

After those realizations, the international response to a major drought in southern Africa in the early 1990s was considered a success.  At the time, William Moseley worked for the British-based group, Save the Children UK.

"They knew that rainfall was poor and that was having an impact on crops.  But they also collected market information, so they were tracking the prices of food going up and they knew about people's income levels from a variety of livelihoods.  And so there was advanced warning; food was delivered early or it was already in the warehouses of national governments," Moseley said.

Food security experts also say it is crucial that drought victims receive aid before they sell off their assets.  If they are forced to do so and they do not receive immediate aid, experts say food prices need to be low to avoid a crisis.

Nairobi-based researcher Marcel Rutten of Leiden University in the Netherlands says this happened for Kenya's drought-affected southern herders in 2009.

"The pastoralists who sold some of their cattle or were able to sell some of the hides were able to buy maize at a relatively cheap price.  Currently, that is another major problem the northern pastoralists are facing.  The price of maize and other grains has tripled over the last year, which is, of course, an extra burden for them," Rutten said.

Experts agree the current volatility and speculation surrounding food prices is making famine prevention much more difficult.

Rutten cautions that as long as early warning does not translate into early action, an African drought can easily turn into a famine.  He says this increasingly is the case for vulnerable pastoralists for several reasons, including the overuse of rivers, deforestation and the reduction of grazing areas by large-scale farms.  Rutten points out that some of these farms are being developed for projects such as exporting flowers or producing biodiesel fuel sources, not food.

As for other recent successes, Frederic Mousseau, policy director with the California-based Oakland Institute, points to West Africa, where the governments of drought-stricken Niger and Burkina Faso and coastal Benin have discussed allowing the cross-border movement of struggling herders.

"It was done through international negotiations involving governments to allow the borders to be opened because, unfortunately, there were limitations to the movement of cattle.  So helping such movements was recently important in the last crisis in West Africa, and it is really thinking out of the box for aid workers and politicians who really think in terms of delivering relief," Mousseau said.

In the current situation in the Horn of Africa, Mousseau says the best practices to be applied are limited because most of the help began arriving late.  Most challenging, he says, is that the worst of the drought has been in areas of Somalia controlled by al-Shabab insurgents, whom the United States considers terrorists.

"There is no magic bullet.  So we are going to have to use traditional ways of responding to emergencies - with food aid, with emergency nutritional programs, with water trucking.  We need to set up camps and increase the capacity of existing camps, especially in Kenya.  So the good practices now will be to urge donors to help United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and governments to set up rapidly an emergency response to the current crisis," Mousseau said.

Food security experts say it is also important to get victims out of camps as quickly as possible once they are saved, and give them cash, seeds and livestock, so they can quickly return to their livelihoods when the drought ends.

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