Unnatural Disaster: The Famine Crisis in Africa and Yemen

The worst hunger emergency since the second world war is happening right now.

That is the conclusion of Stephen O’Brien, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator. For the first time in the organization’s history, his office warns, famine is either underway or developing in four countries at once: South Sudan (where it has already been declared in some regions), Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. Approximately 22 million people are threatened with starvation in the weeks and months ahead. Another 30 million are severely hungry, living with the pain, physical weakness and other debilitating effects of hunger on a daily basis.

O’Brien has made a very specific appeal to U.N. member countries: more than $4 billion by July for emergency relief alone. “We stand at a critical point in our history,” he said. “Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death.”

This disaster cannot be traced to a single cause—indeed the temptation to do so must be rigorously avoided, for anyone concerned with issues of food security. As with all hunger disasters, from those inadvertently engineered by the British in the 19th century to the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa, a host of factors has contributed to the present crisis.

Much More Than Drought

Many casual readers of the news are left with the impression that one factor—the weather—tells them all they need to know about hunger. In the four countries at the heart of the current crisis, the climatic situation is certainly dire. Sustained drought has killed crops, fodder and livestock. Extreme heat events associated with climate change have further damaged food production (for example, by preventing or stunting crop germination). Rivers have shrunk or dried up altogether. Vital rains have failed.

But again, these climatic elements of the tragedy are only part of the picture. During the 2011 crisis, IDCE Director Edward Carr put it bluntly:

The drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia.  We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.

Carr underscores the profoundly interconnected nature of the causes of food insecurity. He notes that such causes virtually always include the failure of markets, as they are the mechanisms by which food reaches people, and through which they generate income to purchase it.

These markets may be local, regional, or global—but increasingly they are all three at once. “At this point, the interdependence of markets is so remarkable that droughts in Russia compromising a wheat harvest can trigger maize price spikes in Malawi during a normal harvest year.”

causes flowchart

As the illustration suggests, market failures themselves stem from numerous causes. Elisabeth Gilmore, an Associate Professor at IDCE, along with colleagues at other institutions, has been investigating the effects of food price spikes on social unrest, regime change and civil war, as well as caloric consumption and economic well-being. Currently, she leads an effort to review the metrics commonly used by conflict scholars to examine the pathways from food prices to political instability. She cautions that over the longer term, higher food prices (such as those caused by climate shocks) could force the world’s poorest to spend more and more of their income on sustaining basic caloric needs, with adverse impacts for development and social stability.

Conflict, in the current hunger emergency, is a factor of extraordinary importance. Ellen Messer of the United Nations University goes so far as to state that “only in conflict-affected areas does drought produce famine that kills.” Others analysts do not go so far. What is certain is that all four countries now threatened with famine are experiencing large-scale armed conflict, with millions of people having been driven from their homes.

In Yemen, the ongoing war is a disaster of staggering proportions all by itself. Various municipalities are under near-constant siege, both by Houthi rebels and devastating Saudi airstrikes (with initial, and to some degree continuing, U.S. support). The city of Taiz, third largest in Yemen, has been without running water or electricity for two years. Health and sanitation systems have broken down, as have systems of governance and accountability.

In addition to the thousands killed in battles and bombing raids since the outbreak of war in 2015, the conflict has shattered the economy, displaced over two million persons and left 6.8 million in a condition of extreme food insecurity. Of these, some 3.3 million children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are severely malnourished. And the ongoing combat has slowed or halted nearly every form of response. Western banks, doubting that they will be repaid, have cut lines of credit for food traders seeking to import food into the country. Fighting in and around Yemen’s ports has endangered humanitarian workers and destroyed dock equipment, leaving vessels laden with food anchored offshore. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called Yemen’s crisis the largest food insecurity emergency in the world.”

Conflict is also the most acute factor in South Sudan’s famine emergency, where war has been raging since 2013. Food has even become a weapon of war in this young country, where crops have been intentionally burned and millions forced off their farms, often into refugee camps in Uganda or Kenya. This spring, IDCE Professor Amira Mohamed taught a class entitled “Conflict and Displacement in the Horn of Africa,” and devoted portions of the class to famine and food security. In early March, the class hosted a panel discussion on the recently-declared famine in South Sudan, in which scholars and human rights activists Dr. Isaac Gang and Omer Ismail participated via Skype.

In similar fashion, the fighting in northeast Nigeria (between government forces and Boko Haram militants) has displaced two million people. The fighting prevented harvest of the last two years of crops and could do so again in 2017. It has also crippled the internal markets that could otherwise be moving produce from other regions of Nigeria into the northeast.

Somalia last suffered famine in 2011, and now faces the possibility of its return. Unlike 2011, there is now a real if fragile central government in Mogadishu, and hence something of a national response. On the other hand drought conditions are more severe and widespread: last year, the country’s first seasonal rains were well below average, and the second, final rains failed altogether. In the first months of 2017 the vital Shabelle river in southern Somalia has been dangerously low. Just as concerning is the lateness of the global response. The global humanitarian reporting agency IRIN notes:

If there was an overwhelming lesson from 2011, it was that the time for rapid action is before the situation deteriorates into famine. The window for early action to prevent widespread mortality in 2017 is rapidly closing – indeed it is already late in the process to be trying to mitigate the crisis.

As Edward Carr noted in 2011, the public’s ability to help with an ongoing crisis is limited. “Send money,” he advises. “Don’t send clothes, shoes, or any other stuff. There is a world of advice on donating to aid organizations out there on the blogs and twitter, so do a little research beforehand.” Individuals, however, should not even consider making a journey to a region facing a food emergency, as it’s impossible not to get in the way. “If you don’t have a network to work through, you shouldn’t be going. It’s really that simple.”

But anyone concerned with food security can help in the struggle for long-term solutions. That struggle rests fundamentally on improving our grasp of the full, multi-causal nature of the problem of hunger. In future articles on food security, ENGAGE will consider some of the ways IDCE scholars and others are applying their knowledge and eschewing disciplinary boundaries in the search for answers.

Update: in a fascinating and highly pertinent essay, IDCE Professor Amber Murrey discusses food sovereignty, food justice and imperialism through the example of Thomas Sankara of Burkino Faso. Among other things, her essay reminds us how food aid can actually erode food security in the long term if not paired with broader movements for ecological and social justice.



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