This year’s drought in the Horn of Africa has been the region’s worst in decades and has exploded into a humanitarian catastrophe affecting millions. In Somalia, where the drought is layered on top of two decades of conflict and an extremely weak state, the impact of the drought has been most damaging. Somalia is the only country in the region where the UN has declared famine zones
. And, even though the UN recently upgraded
three of Somalia’s six famine areas to “lesser emergencies,” four million Somalis – more than half the country’s population – remain in urgent need
of food and general humanitarian aid.
The drought may have been what sparked the current crisis, but other, longer-term factors, like a sustained lack of agricultural development, extreme rural poverty, and changing weather patterns, not to mention Somalia’s lack of functioning government, set the stage.
A Long-Term Crisis in the Making
“Lack of rainfall over several seasons is the most immediate and most visible cause of the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa,” said Jim Hansen of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in a brief video produced this summer by the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University (watch above). Much of the Horn’s population “depends on rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism for their livelihoods and sustenance,” said Hansen. Already “quite poor and…locked in poverty for quite a long time,” environmental and resource degradation, paired with rapid population growth, have compounded their vulnerability to extreme events, he said.
Throughout the region, resilience to crises like the current drought has been weakened by decades of poor agricultural planning, “driven more by shifts in ideology than any real evidence among some of the key international development organizations,” said Hansen. That poor planning has made communities more dependent on humanitarian aid when poor weather hits, which in turn forces aid groups to redirect resources away from longer-term development and towards short-term disaster relief instead, Hansen said.
While these problems exist across the Horn of Africa, Hansen points out that the crisis has been most damaging in Somalia, which he attributes to the country’s weak governance and to international aid groups’ limited ability to operate in the country.
“Northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia, and Somalia have similar severity of drought, but the humanitarian crisis is much more severe – the loss of livelihood and life is greater in Somalia largely because the government is weaker,” he said.
The Government’s Role
Owen Barder, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, draws a more direct line between governance and famine in the Horn. “In Somalia…there’s a complete breakdown of government, and the consequence is the famine that we’re seeing,” said Barder during a Center for Global Development podcast. The country has been without a functioning government since 1991, when civil war broke out. It has since become “the most food-insecure nation in the world” and, as described by Foreign Policy, “the international community’s longest-running failure.”
Barder raised two points about the government’s role in famine. One, that access to information – in this case an early warning system monitoring drought conditions – can minimize the humanitarian impact of any given natural disaster; and two, that a country’s government must be able to translate that information into action in order for it to actually make a difference.
Barder is not alone in emphasizing the state’s role as a driver of the famine. Edward Carr, a AAAS science fellow with USAID, wrote in July, when the UN first declared famine in Somalia, that attributing the famine solely to drought is “a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.”
Charles Kenny, also a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, went even further on Foreign Policy, arguing that famine, or “mass starvation as an intentional act of governance,” should be categorized as a crime and prosecutable at the International Criminal Court.
Al Shabab and the Months Ahead
As of late November, the United Nations estimated that tens of thousands had died in Somalia alone since drought began this spring. Though USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) reports that famine has now subsided in three of the six southern regions it initially struck, a quarter of a million Somalis remain at risk of “imminent starvation,” according to the UN.
According to FEWSNET, famine should not reappear in the foreseeable future, assuming aid groups can maintain current distribution levels – a key caveat. Ten days after FEWSNET issued its analysis, however, Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked militant organization that controls much of southern Somalia, banned 16 aid groups, including UNICEF and the World Health Organization, from operating in the areas under its control. UNICEF spokesman Jaya Murthy told the BBC that the move would put “about 160,000 severely malnourished children…at imminent risk of death.”
Fighting in southern Somalia between Al Shabab and Kenyan and Ethiopian forces is adding another layer to the country’s humanitarian crisis. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees reported that, as of late November, the fighting had become the primary driver of internal displacement, replacing drought and famine as the key drivers during the first three quarters of the year. The UNHCR estimated that, between the drought and the conflict, 1.46 million Somalis have been displaced.
Meanwhile, the rainy season is picking up, and although that’s good news for farmers and pastoralists, it also means that Somalis will be vulnerable to diseases like measles, typhoid, and cholera, which can spread quickly through overcrowded, under-supplied IDP camps. Somalis still living under Al Shabab’s control are prohibited from getting vaccinations, amplifying their vulnerability to disease in the coming months.
These latest developments offer strong evidence that policy decisions can exacerbate the human toll of natural disasters. From Barder’s perspective, that is reason for optimism. “We have the information, we have the capacity to prevent it from happening,” he said.
For more on Somalia’s underlying demographic issues, see Elizabeth Leahy Madsen’s post “In Somalia, Beyond the Immediate Crises, Demography Reveals a Long-Term Challenge.”
Sources: AlertNet, Associated Press, BBC, Famine Early Warning Systems Network, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, The New York Times, UNHCR, UN News Centre, Voice of America.
Video Credit: “Jim Hansen on Food Security in East Africa,” courtesy of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society on vimeo; image credit: FEWSNET/USAID.