Cycle of Hunger Crisis in East Africa



“We’re just going to watch this happen again and again,” was the observation of a news program interviewee while discussing the current hunger crisis in eastern Africa. The drought and extreme food shortage in the eastern Africa are once again dominating the headlines along with shocking images from the region.

While no less shocking, the tragedy of famine is anything but new in this part of the world. The enormous amount of 10 million people are now suffering from the latest cycle of food crises, among them 2 million children under the age of five years.

Twenty-seven years ago, this BBC report showed horrific images of dying children by which the 1982-85 famine in Ethiopia seeped into the consciousness of the rest of the world. Severe drought and a civil war drove millions of people into starvation. The death toll was increasing by the day and response from the Ethiopian government and the West couldn’t be more wanting. In May 1981, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of Ethiopia presented evidence of worsening weather conditions in the country during the United Nations Conference on Least Developed Countries. But it was only three years later, when the famine had already killed thousands of people that the international community took notice.

In 1999, warning bells sounded off again as harvests in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia were under threat because of low rainfall. Chilling statistics were again stalking the news: five children dying every day, eight million people facing starvation. The border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was making the situation worse.

In the last six years, the threat of famine has been looming over East Africa and present conditions are eerily similar to past crises: drought which is now said to be the worst in 60 years, armed conflict and chronic poverty. In 2005, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 11 million people are at risk of starvation. In 2008, Oxfam reported that more than 14 million people are in need of urgent food aid and humanitarian assistance.

Today parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda are experiencing crop failures due to the severe dry spell. Livestock are dying because of the shortage of grazing land and water. Food prices are increasing and people are too poor to afford them. Then there’s the civil war in Somalia. Those who can muster the strength walk for miles to reach the refugee camps, which are stretched past their limits. Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee complex, has a capacity of 90,000 but now has over 380,000 people.

This latest round of crisis has again raised urgent appeals for humanitarian assistance as well as criticisms of insufficient funding and delayed response. Just as it happened decades ago, it still seems customary to wait first for images of the dead and dying to hit mainstream media before the rest of the world actually does something. Also just like decades ago, solutions still seem to be largely limited to food aid and other stop-gap responses that don’t address the root causes of these problems.

The factors that contribute to the hunger crises over the years have been similar. Droughts for instance, have been occurring in the region for decades. Doesn’t it make sense to implement long-term solutions that will enable communities to be less vulnerable to these weather conditions? After the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, USAID established the Famine Early Warning Systems Network that’s supposed to warn about famines. While the current situation is not yet classified as a famine, millions of people are already starving and among them are children who are extremely malnourished. Shouldn’t an early warning system also lead to an early and adequate response?

East Africa is stuck in a cruel cycle of hunger crisis and not just because they keep on having the same problems but because we keep on making the same mistakes in addressing them.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-0995/Kate Holt Somali refugees wait to register for food and other aid in the Dagahaley refugee camp in North Eastern Province, near the Kenya-Somalia border. The camp is among three that comprise the Dadaab camps, located on the outskirts of the town of Dadaab in Garissa District.

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