Horn of Africa faces worst drought in 60 years
In the Horn of Africa, famine yet again threatens the lives of millions of people as the region is experiencing its worst drought in 60 years.
Yet again it’s the Horn of Africa that gives us these images of drought, famine and starvation. Immediately, one recalls the famine of 1984 when similar images from Ethiopia shocked the world. These striking images led to Live Aid and a new era of awareness of the need to invest in development aid.
Now we are seeing similar images again, and immediately the question arises: if now, 30 years later, we still see the same images of starvation and famine in Ethiopia and Somalia, does aid actually work?
But the truth is that since 1984 a system has been built up with surveillance, satellite and detailed analysis that provides early warning of a potential food crisis. That system has worked. Since late 2009, the famine early warning systems network has been highlighting the risk of food security in the region, and for the last year development aid agencies have been warning that the Horn of Africa was at high risk of humanitarian disaster.
The rains that are so vital for this dry area (for agriculture and livestock) have performed poorly for a number of years and completely failed in the last two seasons. April, which is normally the wettest month of the year, and which on average sees about 200 to 250 ml of rain, only brought 30 to 40 ml in 2010. Since then, there has been no rain in the area – directly leading to the loss of crops and loss of most people’s assets, which is livestock. Rains aren’t expected for the rest of the year, and the crisis looks set to continue well into 2012.
When people’s crops fail, and their savings, in the form of livestock, disappear, they have nothing to fall back on. They immediately become reliant on food aid and other assistance. In the past year, the price of grain in Somalia has doubled and the price of sorghum (one of the most important food grains eaten in the area) tripled. For the estimated 12 million people affected in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Kenya, there is no way but to rely on the international community for assistance.
A preventable disaster?
In addition to the suffering and human tragedy that we are now seeing on our TV screens, it is sad to know that much of this was avoidable. Over the last number of years, programmes that were looking at structural solutions to these problems – such as digging out more water wells, vaccination programmes for people and for cattle, organising the migration routes for the pastoralists – were in the pipeline but did not attract any funding from the international community.
The truth is that emergency and relief agencies find it very difficult to raise the necessary funds for preventing disasters and emergencies, despite the early warning systems that are in place. Donors tend to react after disaster has happened, once the shocking photographs are on TV, and often too late. We have to remember that the UN estimates that investing 1 euro in disaster reduction saves 7 euros you don’t have to spend on disaster relief and emergency aid later.
Either way, the people in the Horn of Africa are suffering, and they do need our help. And they need our help quickly. Many Irish development agencies are on the ground working to deal with the crisis and save lives.
On www.howyoucanhelp.ie we have outlined some of the principles of how emergency aid can work and must be organised.