Here we go again: famine in Horn of Africa

By: Simon Levine

Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute

This week, yet again, the spectre of famine in the Horn of Africa has reappeared on our television screens and in our newspapers. Across large parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, livestock are dying in huge numbers because they cannot get water and pasture. Ominously, no rains are due until September, so even if the next rainy season is a good one pasture won’t recover until October at the earliest. Until then things can only get worse, and the cruellest irony of all is that the first rains bring a cold shock that many of the undernourished surviving animals won’t be able to survive. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of livestock will die. Tens of thousands of children may well die too, while hundreds of thousands of stricken people flock to refugee camps in search of food and medical care. Although humanitarian agencies are gearing themselves up to mount a response, it is far too late to address anything but the worst symptoms. Measures that could have kept animals alive – and providing milk, and income to buy food – would have been much cheaper than feeding malnourished children, but the time for those passed with very little investment.

We have been here before. There were droughts and crises in the Horn of Africa in 1999/2000, 2002/3, 2005/6 and 2008/9. Each time the response has been the same – late and inadequate. Each time we have had ample warning, and this time is no exception, with the crisis well signalled in November last year, so early warning systems are not to blame for the lack of reaction.

And please don’t call the crisis ‘a drought’, although the lack of rain will doubtless be the only problem that gets discussed, as if pastoralists have never developed systems for coping with recurring rain failures: they have – by moving their livestock over the rangelands in search of new water sources and fresh pasture. Famines don’t occur in pastoral areas when rains fail unless they have other problems…

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Posted on 7 July 2011 in News, Pastoralism & Climate Change, Pastoralism & Natural Resources