Following months of concern about a drought and food crisis building in East Africa, the United Nations declared in late July that two regions in Somalia, southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, are now experiencing famine, as millions of other people in Kenya and Ethiopia are struggling to survive.
The crisis has ensnared more than 10 million people across the Horn of Africa, but it’s in Somalia, plagued by years of conflict, where families are facing the gravest threats.
The United Nations uses a five-step scale to assess a country’s food security—or the ability of its people to access sufficient food to meet their needs and ensure active, healthy lives. The fifth stage is “famine/humanitarian catastrophe.” It’s declared when malnutrition rates climb higher than 30 percent, when more than two people out of 10,000 die each day, and when food is limited to less than 2,100 calories a day per person.
Rarely does one overriding factor cause a famine. Usually, a series of circumstances in concert are the trigger. In Somalia, a two-year drought has caused record food inflation, with the price of red sorghum, a grain, rocketing 240 percent higher now than it was this time last year. And the next harvest is expected to be just 50 percent of normal.
The drought has also killed much of the livestock on which herders in the region depend for food and income. In some areas, up to 90 percent of the animals have died. Without those assets, families have lost a great deal of their purchasing power. And making matters worse is the internal conflict gripping Somalia—a severe discouragement to development.
But underlying all of this has been the inability of Somalia’s government and donors to tackle the country’s chronic poverty, which has marginalized vulnerable people and weakened their ability to cope: There has been a lack of investment in social services and basic infrastructure and a lack of good governance.
In Somalia, and beyond to Ethiopia and Kenya, donors have reacted too late and too cautiously to the drought and food crisis. According to United Nations figures, $1 billion is required to meet immediate needs. Donors have committed less than $200 million, leaving an $800 million gap.
Humanitarian relief is desperately needed to save lives. But longer-term solutions are needed to address underlying problems.
The international community needs to provide more support for small farmers and herders. Parts of Africa have long faced chronic food shortages, where even small disruptions in harvests can result in terrible consequences for people. Small-scale food producers need help with hardier crops, cheaper inputs, and disaster risk management.
To alleviate rural African poverty, more investment is needed in physical infrastructure, such as roads and communication systems.
Ultimately, famine prevention in Africa rests with African governments. But some need help to rid their countries of conflict and to build democratically responsive, accountable, and transparent institutions so they can address fundamental problems of food production and access.
The famine in Somalia is now the fifth large-scale food crisis in Africa in this century—at a time when famine has been eradicated everywhere else. It serves as a wakeup call for long-term solutions to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Oxfam aims to reach 3 million people in the East Africa region with a variety of support including food aid, clean water, and veterinary care for animals. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can help save lives in East Africa.