Global Policy Studies & International Security

We Should Have Seen This Coming


How is it possible that in 2011 the world failed prevent famine in the Horn of Africa? The signs of disaster were present: two years of drought, no food storage, political instability, civil war and banned foreign assistance, but no one acted until it was too late.   Now, three months later, thousands of people have died and millions more are still in need of aid.

So why do we still call a situation that is prone to turn into a famine and lead to the death of thousands of people adrought?

Texas is currently experiencing a drought.  We had one of the hottest summers on record resulting in $5 billion of crop loss and wildfires that destroyed 1,600 homes.  But most of us remain unaffected, only aware of the drought because of imposed water restrictions, burn bans and a poor tubing season.

Drought in Austin means we can still run our washing machines, our dishwashers, water our yards with a hose, take hot showers, keep our pools full and provide enough food for our families.

That is not what defines this drought in Somalia.

Ten million people in the Horn of Africa are still in need of immediate aid.  In the last three months, tens of thousands of people have died of starvation, including 29,000 children under the age of 5.  The UN estimates about 750,000 people (approximately the population of Austin) are still at risk of starvation.

Drought and famine relief efforts have been established in neighboring Ethiopia, but not in Somalia where the need is the greatest.  Al-Shabab, an Islamist rebel group, currently controls southern and central Somalia and has imposed a ban on foreign aid agencies.  International relief efforts have actively been prevented from entering the country and many that tried have been killed.

In order to receive relief, Somali families are fleeing their homes, walking for weeks to receive food aid and clean water at refugee camps in Ethiopia. Along the way they must search, beg and bargain for food.  If there isn’t enough, parents must choose which of their children will live and which will die.

These two situations could not be more different, so why are we still using the same word to describe them?

Declaring a crisis a famine is like yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater – you don’t declare it unless it’s true.  The U.N. did not declare famine until the Bakool region in Somalia could actually be defined as such.

The U.N.‘s food security classification system is the "Integrated Food Security Phase Classification", which ranges from “generally food secure” to “famine/humanitarian catastrophe”.  A food security crisis becomes a famine when there exists, “extreme social upheaval with complete lack of food, access and/or other basic needs where mass starvation, death, and displacement are evident.”

Today, six regions in Somalia are experiencing famine, and retrospective signs that famine was coming were very obvious.

Somalia has experienced four droughts in the last 30 years.  There are no food stores and limited access to clean water.  After two years of no rain, crops were dying, animals were starving and food prices were soaring.  These conditions coupled with political instability have exacerbated the crisis.

Al-Shabab has controlled the southern and central regions since 2009.  They have enforced shari’a law and mandatory military service, and threaten those who do not follow their laws.   By denying Somalis access to food aid, al-Shabab controls food supplies in the region.  Their control has exacerbated the effects of the drought and has caused millions to be at risk of starvation.

If the warning signs of crisis were recognized, the famine in Somalia might have been prevented.

Last week the U.N. pledged $200 million to help prevent future drought-related food crises in the Horn of Africa.  They aim to tackle the root of the problem in Somalia by creating secure food supplies during periods of drought as has been done in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Until then, future famines can be prevented by framing drought differently than in the rest of the world by creating awareness of a potential crisis early and sending in relief efforts before they are needed. Famine is preventable.  The world just needs to be aware of the radical difference in the meaning of drought in the Horn of Africa and the rest of the world.

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