Why the Horn of Africa Is Starving Again

Mike Pflanz/IRIN

The current drought in the Horn of Africa has caused an unprecedented food crisis that is quickly turning into a regional humanitarian disaster.

More than 17 million people in the region are classified by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation as food-insecure and in need of external food assistance.

As humanitarian aid agencies scale up global campaigns for food and medical aid, the ethical question being asked of governments in the region and their external development partners is how effective, if at all, they have been in mitigating the causes and impact of natural disasters, such as drought and floods that frequently debilitate the people in the region.

The drought emergency is a cyclical occurrence that is predictable and anticipated, but mitigation measures do not seem to be sufficient or are not working.

The drought-affected persons are nearly double those affected in 2011, when 9.5 million people in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda were reported to have been affected by the worst drought emergency in 60 years. The global humanitarian community responded rapidly to save the situation, though in the worst affected areas, the relief was too little too late to reverse the suffering of starving people and livestock.

This La Niña-induced drought has caused a substantial increase in food prices and will have serious consequences on the livelihoods of the affected communities.

According to international humanitarian agency CARE International, the food shortages caused by drought can have devastating long-term effects on children who miss the basic nutrients. In its latest assessment, CARE says the millions of people suffering from drought include 680,000 pregnant and lactating mothers, who are exposed to malnutrition.

The impact of this will be felt by their unborn children and breastfeeding babies. Their future health and development is compromised, because they are receiving much less than their optimal food and nutrition requirements.

Preventing next drought

Studies by governments in the region in collaboration with the United Nations, the World Bank and other agencies have documented the drought cycle–every four to five years–its impact on the communities, economic losses and cost of long-term mitigation measures.

In 2011, an extensive assessment produced a detailed account of the historic and current impact of drought on the communities and the economies of the affected countries. It also recommended the type and scale of investment that was needed to improve the resilience of the affected communities against drought.

For Kenya, the cost of the drought from 2008-2011 amounted to $12.1 billion, according to the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) 2008-2011 Drought report, produced by the government with technical support from the European Union, the United Nations and the World Bank. The report quantified the scale of losses in terms of flows to economic sectors and destruction of physical and durable assets.

The International Federation of the Red Cross, which has global experience in dealing with humanitarian crises, has issued a detailed report on the drought and how to prevent the next disaster.

Drought in the Horn of Africa – Preventing the Next Disaster advocated change in policy from emergency responses to more long-term interventions that will make communities more resilient to drought and other natural disasters.

“It’s time to change the way we invest,” said a joint report by IFRC secretary-general Bekele Geleta, and Abbas Gullet, general secretary of the Kenya Red Cross. Their report said while emergency aid was important, “relief alone only deepens the danger,” hence the long-term solution lies in supporting food security programmes.