Since the beginning of the year news headlines have been threatening that famine is, once again, imminent in Africa. In February the United Nations formally declared famine in parts of South Sudan and has urged the international community to work together and take action in South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia where it’s been estimated that 25 million people are in need of food aid.
Famine has a history of ravaging parts of the African continent but the United Nations has advised that the situation is threatening to become worse than the Somali famine of 2011.Oxfam has called this “the largest hunger emergency in the world,” fuelled by incessant drought in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya while South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria have experienced conflicts that have left millions destitute and in need of emergency food.
If the UN were to declare famine in Somalia, Yemen, or Nigeria, this would lead to an unprecedented situation in Africa and one, it could be argued, that can be avoided in today’s day and age. Given that globally enough food is produced to feed the world, where are we going wrong?
A common theme around the topic of famine and starvation is conflict. In Yemen, a multi-party conflict has caused widespread destruction, resulting in a disruption in stability and loss of life. The conflict has resulted in a trade blockade which has seen food prices spiralling out of control and pushed civilians to the brink of starvation.
In Nigeria where the northeast of the country has been under siege by the Boko Haram insurgency, around 2.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes and are no longer able to farm their land. To add to this, diseases spread by dirty water and poor hygiene have ravaged those displaced.
Famine in Somalia
Given the current reality and the country’s tormented history with famine—such as the failure to prevent the 2011 famine in which 260,000 people died—there has been a move for the international community to work with the Somali government. This becomes difficult, however, in light of the fact that Somalia is a failed state.
Somalia has a complicated history littered with the realities of clan wars, unstable governments, and civil war. For more than twenty-five years a civil war has raged on Somalia’s borders in the absence of a legitimate government. This has led to drastic economic decline, the displacement of millions of Somali, dilapidated social institutions, lawlessness, and an insurgency led by Al-Shabab which has controlled a large part of southern Somalia since 2006.
Somalia’s famine in 2011 was caused by a two-year-long drought which resulted in reduced harvests, a loss in livestock, food inflation, and a drop in income which ultimately devastated a country which had already been suffering from high levels of malnutrition and child mortality.
Given the fact that Somalia is a failed state, a natural drought escalated into a man-made famine due to the inability of the government to address the issues at hand. The necessary infrastructure and assistance needed from the state wasn’t readily available.
An important lesson from the 2011 famine in Somalia was that famines are about more than just food: on a very elemental level they revolve around access to clean water. Without this, an outbreak of diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea threaten to transform camps into deadlier areas than the dry lands.
Famine in South Sudan
This is not the first time South Sudan has experienced famine. It has suffered a history of famine linked to drought which has been exacerbated by civil wars between southern and northern Sudan. However, the current situation is a prime example of a man-made famine not caused by draught or floods but by conflict and civil war that has spurred on a collapsing economy.
The worst part about the famine in South Sudan is that the country has the climate and resources to effectively provide for its people. The land is not ravaged with drought; it is fertile. The main cause for the famine in South Sudan is the conflict it has been in since 2013. More than three million people have had to flee their homes, including farmers who have lost their livestock, tools, and access to arable land. Understandably this has had a drastic impact on the country’s ability to produce crops to feed its people. Added to this shortage in food, inflation started spiking to unmanageable highs, resulting in massive price hikes for basic products.
Part of the crisis can be directly attributed to the government. The UN has reported that President Salva Kiir’s government has blocked food aid to certain areas in the country and there have been reports of humanitarian convoys and warehouses being looted by both government and rebel forces.
Humanitarian organisations don’t know who is operating in some parts of the country and are unable to communicate effectively with those in charge in order to distribute humanitarian aid. Furthermore, it is unsafe for humanitarian workers to operate in South Sudan. Since 2013, around 100 humanitarian workers have been killed.
While conflicts and wars play a contributing, if not leading, role when it comes to famines, the ever-present threat of climate change has long been identified with an increase in the frequency of droughts. When you’re talking global north and global south, the haves and have nots or developed and developing countries, the scales of justice are yet again horrifically skewed considering the hardest-hit countries are those that produced not even a fraction of the carbon emissions that are largely to blame for climate change.
By the time famine is formally declared, people have already started dying of hunger. The reality of that means people are currently literally starving to death. Take a minute to let that sink in beyond the numbers and dreadful facts. We’ve come to the point where children are beyond help and even if aid did arrive, it would be too late.
Unfortunately, declaring famine in a country doesn’t place any binding obligations on other countries to offer aid. Historically, the US has financially been the most generous donor of foreign aid, but President Trump has made known his intentions to drastically cut foreign aid (including humanitarian and emergency aid), which does not bode well at a time of humanitarian crisis.
That said, humanitarian aid and assistance are short-term solutions when situations are at their most dire and, by all means, extremely necessary. However, in the absence of long-term peace, meaningful human security and sustained development, famines will continue unabated given the realities of natural disasters, climate change, and conflict.