Monday, 25 July 2011

UN officially declares a famine in Somalia

Last week, the UN officially declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia. This is the first famine to hit Somalia since 1992 and although it is currently contained in the regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle, there are fears that this famine could spread throughout the rest of the country. The UN estimates that 2.5 million people in Somalia are in desperate need of assistance so why exactly has it taken so long for it to be officially classed as a famine?

Well, the main reason is that to define a famine is slightly more complex than simply a shortage of food, as some may think. In 2005, the UN established criteria to provide guidance to those needing to declare a famine and to help them allocate their limited resources. Therefore, the UN ranks food security into 5 stages, with famine being the fifth and most severe. They created 3 conditions that have to be met before a famine can be declared:-

- 20% of the population must have fewer than 2100 kilocalories of food available per day
- More than 30% of the children must be acutely malnourished
- 2 deaths per day in every 10,000 people or 4 deaths per day in every 10,000 children must be caused by a lack of food

National Governments have the responsibility to declare a state of famine but, due to the fear of the long term detrimental impact doing so could have on the way the country is perceived, many governments are reluctant to do so. In the case of Somalia, the UN had to step in and take control of the situation as there is a lack of central government in the country.

Until this month, aid agencies had been banned from working in quite large parts of Somalia by the Al-Shabab group, who exercise control over much of southern and central Somalia. It is hoped that the declaration of famine in southern Somalia will provoke greater international efforts to help tackle the situation, which is only likely to get worse without international intervention.

The worst drought in over half a century being experienced in the horn of Africa is to blame for the famine. So, what has created this bad drought?

Think back to the really bad floods experienced in Australia, Sri Lanka and Brazil earlier this year. Well they were caused by La Nina, however, La Nina does not increase rainfall across the globe and in fact, in some areas, it can drastically decrease rainfall. This is the effect that La Nina is having on the horn of Africa and it is one of the principal reasons why this area is experiencing a drought. The hope is that once the switch to El Nino occurs the rainfall will start again but at present, it could be a while until this switch occurs as there are no apparent signs that this is happening. Another factor that is believed to have made this drought so bad is the fact that the temperature of the Indian Ocean is warmer than it has been in previous years. This has provoked an increase in the precipitation over the sea which has reduced precipitation over the land. The rains have failed for three successive rainy seasons and two should occur each year (May to March and October to December).

The drought is, perhaps, the most influential contributory factor that has generated the famine but it is not the only reason…….

Conflict in the area has generated thousands upon thousands of refugees who further increase the population density of the area, meaning that there are more mouths to feed. Many of these refugees have been forced into Kenya and Ethiopia who, respectively, have a predicted 3.5 million and 3.2 million people in need of immediate assistance and this has only acted to increase the food and water shortages in these two neighbouring countries. Conflict, combined with other factors, has led to increases in both food and fuel prices, thereby meaning that affordable food is more and more of a problem. Farmers currently have to sell 5 goats to enable them to buy one 90kg bag of maize. One of the biggest issues is that around 65% of the population are Pastoralists and so make their living by raising and grazing livestock. The drought has caused many of their animals to die of dehydration, thus depriving people of their only food source and income. The lack of development in Somalia is responsible for leaving the Pastoralists vulnerable to such climate extremes as that currently being experienced as a lack of infrastructure, primarily roads and market centres, has closed off their easiest route to prosperity – something which many believe would insulate them from climate extremes.          

The conflict and control exercised over many regions of Somalia has slowed, and in some cases prevented, the aid getting through to the people who clearly so desperately need it. The UN has announced that they will begin airlifting food to Somalia on Tuesday and the World Bank has pledged $500 million in monetary aid - $12 million of which is being used for immediate assistance to the worst hit areas in East Africa. With more than 10 million people estimated to be at risk of starvation; the aid effort needs to be an internationally united one if it is to have the required effect. However, the aid effort cannot stop as soon as the food shortage has been solved. Money needs to be spent on making farming practices in Somalia more sustainable and productive so that food shortages are not a problem in the future. It is true that climate extremes such as the current drought, which has been triggered by La Nina, cannot be prevented but their impacts could be reduced. Improving transport links and infrastructure between rural and urban areas would allow for easier and more effective trade – something which would help prevent people for being isolated by similar climatic extremes.
This situation is far from being remedied and so if I were you I would monitor it and the effectiveness of the aid effort – this is an issue that could be linked easily to the Development and Globalisation module.

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