Africa's worst drought in 60 years threatens famine for 10m

Paul Vallely
Wednesday 06 July 2011 00:00 BST

Suddenly there is talk of famine in Africa again. Ten million people are at risk of starvation in the worst drought conditions in 60 years in Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. Tens of thousands of people have left their homes in search of water and food. Hundreds of thousands of farm animals have died.

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Every day some 1,200 Somalis are crossing the border into Kenya where, near the town of Dadaab, the world's biggest refugee camp, 50km square, has developed. Many of the children arriving there, after month-long treks across the unyielding desert, are so weak that they are dying despite receiving emergency care. Millions more are hungry and have begun the slow journey to wasting from malnutrition.

Oxfam has just launched its biggest ever appeal for the continent. The head of the United Nations humanitarian affairs department, Baroness Amos, yesterday appealed for donor nations to "dig deep" to help.

There is nothing sudden about all of this. It is a creeping disaster and an utterly preventable one. In April, aid agencies warned that eight million people were facing severe food shortages. Nothing was done. Three months later that figure has risen to 10 million. Predictions by the international Famine Early Warning Systems Network make clear what will happen by September if the world turns its back.

The classic first signals have been there for months. Livestock prices have plummeted and cereal prices soared, as they always do ahead of famine. Two-thirds of the population make their living by raising goats, sheep, cattle and camels. When drought comes, both water and grazing for animals vanish and they sell for downward-spiralling prices. The problem has been exacerbated by a worldwide rise in food prices.

African governments long ago put in place strategic food reserves to cope with such emergencies. These were partially replenished after a good harvest last year. But they were not rebuilt to optimum levels because they had been so greatly depleted by previous years of successive drought.

The problem is that droughts which once came every decade now come every couple of years. A recent study suggests that dry conditions in East Africa are set to continue because of climate change. The cold weather phase known as La Niña, the counterpart to the warming El Niño, is likely to dominate now. That will make the region's rain fall over the sea, bringing drought.

Yet if climate change is unreservedly the fault of the rich world, Africans must take the blame for the other major contributory factor - armed conflict. Somalia is riven with civil strife, from warlords to Kalashnikov-toting cattle-raiders. The resulting chaos has dissuaded the international community from properly funding the World Food Programme to cope with the levels of hunger the drought has produced.

Last year the WFP appealed for $500m to address food insecurity in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Rich donor nations came up with less than half that. They do not need much of an excuse to keep their public purses tightly shut.

Britain has just given £38m towards making good the deficit in WFP funding. The US is expected to announce more money today. But other nations are dragging their feet. China should contribute. So should oil-rich Arab nations, especially since most of the affected population are Muslims.

There is another problem. Food aid is not enough. Moves must be made to increase productivity in both cereals and livestock. The herders of east Africa need assistance with feeding supplements and vaccinations for their animals, better water and soil conservation techniques and improved species of grasses and shrubs to prevent over-grazing.

The G8 meeting in 2009 promised $22bn to improve such subsistence agriculture globally and boost food self-sufficiency. The money has not been delivered. Without it, the destructive cycle will not be broken which forces hungry pastoralists to sell their means of production – livestock – as part of a short-term survival strategy.

If famine is poised to stalk the dry lands of Africa again it will not be nature that is to blame, but the warlords of Africa and the complacency of the rich West.

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