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Humanitarian aid

Hunger in the Horn of Africa

by Jedida Oneko
A child at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya

A child at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya

The world of today is instantly connected by high-tech media and has sophisticated, long-term weather forecasts. Hunger catastrophes as a consequence of drought should be a thing of the past. But the recent and ongoing food emergency in East Africa has shown the opposite: Despite early warnings, the crisis hit full force before the world community reacted. By Jedida Oneko

In 2011, the Horn of Africa experienced the worst drought in 60 years. Some areas in Kenya had not had any rain for nearly two years. The consequences for the agro-pastoralist communities of north and northeast Kenya were dire. At the height of the drought, the people affected spent an average of five to 10 hours daily searching for water, as natural water sources had dried up and the few boreholes in these areas were dry or damaged.

The emergency situation did not come as a surprise: as early as June 2011, the UN had issued a warning that 13 million people in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia faced starvation and were in urgent need of food assistance. Nonetheless, the catastrophe hit the people with full force.

Jan Egeland, the former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, said: “That the needless haemorrhage of human lives took place again in the horn of Africa in 2011, in spite of all our knowledge and all our experience, is an outrage.”

There are several reasons for policymakers responding slowly to a food crisis. Despite forecasts, they usually want to see concrete data before responding to pleas from those on the ground. Apart from that, media attention is important – but public attention is often only attracted when a crisis peaks.

East Africa is a challenge to disaster relief. Agro-pastoral and nomadic communities depend largely on their livestock for milk, meat and as a source of income. Livelihoods were thus lost with weakening
cattle due to long trekking distances in search of water and pasture.

Households in urban settings also faced the effects of the drought. One third of Kenya’s 38.6 million people live in urban areas, and 40 % of them live in slums or informal settlements. Surveys show that slum inhabitants use half of their total earnings to buy food. They were hurt by rising unemployment, volatile food prices and inadequate access to services. Some used unhealthy coping mechanisms, like skipping meals or sending children to work instead of school.

Long term interventions

Food aid through the World Food Programme reached 2.4 million Kenyans and over 300,000 Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese refugees in camps in northern Kenya. In total, $ 95 million were given by various ­donors includng the US administration, Care, the UNHCR and others.

The sheer enormity of the disaster revealed the need for long term development. People need to be protected from this kind of risk. The Red Cross is running long term projects including greenhouse farming and borehole rehabilitation in Kenya. In Somalia, the Red Cross hopes to increase food production by distributing seeds, fertiliser and irrigation pumps. Aid agencies and governments are more and more aware of the need to involve the communities who are threatened by drought in drafting and implementing long term programmes.

Following the Ethiopia famine of 1984/1985, early warning systems had been put in place. FEWSNET, the Famine Early Warning System Network, is funded by USAID, the EU and other donors with the mission of averting similar catastrophes. Some argue that thanks to sophisticated technology, the worst of the 2011 disaster could have been avoided – if only world leaders had acted in time, sourcing food supplies from governments in Africa and international agencies.

Indeed, early warning systems are useless unless they trigger action. Signs of an impending hunger disaster in East Africa were evident in as early as August 2010, and the failure of the autumn rains made matters worse. In a report dated 15 March 2011, FEWSNET stated that food insecurity was already at a critical point. It warned that – even if rainfall levels should turn out average – there would nonetheless be “localised famine conditions” and child mortality would rise “significantly”. Soon after, the emergency was declared and aid started reaching the affected people in the Horn of Africa.

Drought and poor governance

The Horn of Africa Summit in September 2011 in Nairobi was attended by leaders from the region. They agreed to develop the “Horn of Africa Regional Disaster Resilience and Sustainability Strategy Framework”. Although the circumstances of the drought played out differently in the various countries concerned, it was apparent that all governments were overburdened by the situation.

In Kenya, the government spokesman came under sharp criticism for saying that the government was unaware of any deaths caused by the drought, at a time when the first cases of death had already been reported. With the lack of trust in the Kenyan leadership, Kenyan citizens took it upon themselves to help the drought affected communities. The initiative Kenyans for Kenya fast surpassed its initial goal of collecting donations worth 500 million Kenya shillings (equivalent of about € 4,5 million). By February, it had raised almost 700 million shillings.

Governments all over Africa have a reputation for treating their citizens unfairly: The Ethiopian government has recently come under the spotlight. It was accused of forced relocations of villagers in the Gambelle region, wanting to clear the area for foreign investment in agriculture. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch, the Ethiopian government relocated 70,000 people into new vil­lages that lack healthcare and educational facilities as well as adequate farmland. In other words, these villagers were put in a situation of food insecurity.

Kenya’s government employs poor policies on emergency relief, and is slow to implement new ones. Furthermore, only one percent of the national budget is used in support of the livestock sector, even though this sector contributes 12 % to Kenya’s GDP and 15 % of the people depend on it.

Refugees suffer too, of course. The situation in the Dadaab camp in northern Kenya is critical. According to ­UNHCR, there are currently 463,000 refugees in Dadaab camp, far exceeding its 90,000 capacity. The majority of the refugees are from neighbouring Somalia, a country without a functioning government. The increasing threat of the militant Al Shabaab group made it impossible for aid agencies to reach drought affected communities. In January 2012, the Red Cross was forced to withdraw aid intended for 1.1 million people in Somalia, after being blocked yet again by Al Shabaab.

According to FEWSNET, the famine in Somalia is over, but almost one third of the people are still “in crisis”, especially in the country’s south, where access to humanitarian aid remains limited. The situation is said to have improved due to some rain, an above-average winter harvest and “the massive scale-up of emergency response since September/October”. The experts warn that people continue to be “extremely vulnerable to both price and rainfall shocks”.

Climate change certainly plays a role. Pastoral communities in Kenya were able to recover their liveli­hoods when droughts only occurred every ten years or so. But now, with two-year intervals apparently becoming normal, a collective global effort to protect the climate is necessary.