It feels like we’ve been down this road before, doesn’t it? Once again the world is scrambling to deliver emergency food supplies to alleviate yet another food crisis in eastern Africa. While vulnerability to famine outside the continent has been almost completely eradicated, the Horn has more than earned the moniker, “land of famine.”
Famines have been recorded in the region since 253 BC, but it is not until relatively recently that the two became become synonymous. According to the paper, Famine in the Twentieth Century by Stephen Devereux, a Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, it was China and Russia that were the epicentres of famine in much of the last century, accounting for 80% of famine-related deaths. Since the late 1960s, however, the vast majority of recorded famines have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.
It would perhaps be comforting to blame this on droughts caused by climate change. In 2005, the acclaimed BBC documentary, Horizons, did just that, concluding that “what came out of [European and North American] exhaust pipes and power stations contributed to the deaths of a million people [in the 1984 Ethiopian famine].” Yet research carried out especially since the 80s has effectively debunked the link between drought-related crop failure and famine deaths.
The Horn of Africa experiences terrible droughts every three to four years on average, but rarely do these result in mass mortality. Furthermore, drought is not exclusive to the region. In the developed world, however, its effects are calculated in terms of economic losses, not deaths or starvation. It appears that the most critical factors affecting whether droughts are translated into mass graves are political will and a functioning transport and communications infrastructure. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
In pre-colonial African societies, as Devereux notes, famines were set off by natural events -droughts, floods, locusts- operating in the context of weak local economies and authorities that were either unable or unwilling to intervene. The colonial period was itself initially characterized by similar catastrophes as the European powers used food as a weapon to extinguish violent resistance to their rule. However, as they came to appreciate the need to cultivate political legitimacy, the development of communications and transport infrastructure, together with the initiation of early warning and intervention systems saw the incidences of mass mortality famine diminish.
In fact, between 1917 and 1957, only one major famine was recorded on the continent.
Independence, for many African nations, ushered in an era of military governments, insurgencies and civil war. Such conflicts tend to displace huge numbers in the affected areas, disrupting agricultural and distribution systems. Budgets in the region are eaten up by military expenditures with little left over for development in infrastructure, with what little there is rendered largely unusable by landmines and attacks on vehicles, including relief convoys.
As a result, countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Liberia, which had known no famine previously, have developed a depressing familiarity with it. In the Horn, where drought-triggered famine was never far away, “complex food emergencies” are the norm. It is no accident that the 1984 famine occurred at the height of the Ethiopian civil war and that the 1992 famine in Somalia followed on the demise of the state a year earlier.
When drought pushes the precarious societies over the edge, displaced populations often suffer the most. In Somalia today, for example, IDPs are twice as likely as the general population to suffer acute malnutrition. Seeking help, these crowd into the few existing government centres, placing huge stress on the remaining food and water production and distribution systems, as well as the existing health care systems, as noted by the relief worker who blogs under the pseudonym Global Nomad. When the hygiene and faecal waste management systems fail, the physical proximity of vast numbers of people accelerates disease transmission rates. The fact is famines kill relatively few as a result of outright starvation. The real killer is disease as malnourished refugees with weakened immune systems are crammed into unsanitary camps.
Famines largely became a thing of the past in China and Russia after governments there invested in communications and transport infrastructure. In northern China, for example, the construction of 6000 miles of railway enabled faster interventions, which reduced famine deaths from up to 13 million in 1870 to half a million in the 1920s, despite analogous climactic conditions. According to William A. Dando, Emeriti Professor of Geography at Indiana State University, the conquest of famines since then was partly due to “promising investments in … transport-communication.” Russia also reduced its citizens’ vulnerability by integrating famine prone regions into the national economy through the development of similar infrastructure.
Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of California have warned that the increased frequency of drought observed in eastern Africa over the last two decades is likely to continue as long as global temperatures continue to rise. The Horn, with its largely non-existent infrastructure and historical absence of government in many parts, is singularly ill-equipped to cope. The heart-breaking stories of malnourished Somalis trekking for up to a month to reach feeding centres, mothers having to abandon emaciated babies by the roadside because they were too weak to make the journey and overflowing refugee camps in Mogadishu where, till now, few medical or aid agencies are working, are illustrative of this. The UN estimates that tens of thousands, mostly children, have already died.
If the world wishes to avoid the spectre of multiple mass mortality famines in the coming decades, the lasting answer is not to be found in the provision of massive amounts of food -sparked by pictures of starving kids- once the catastrophes are underway. Though necessary, such generosity is but a short-term band aid, serving only to prolong lives till the next drought. Resolving conflicts, as the African Union is attempting to do in Somalia, and investing in the region’s infrastructure during the intervening periods, is the best way to guarantee that communities will be ready the next time round.