Starving Africa

A humanitarian catastrophe is looming over East Africa. Countries here are suffering a severe climate-exacerbated drought, which has resulted in a famine. Some 23 million people in the region are facing severe hunger. The worst affected is Somalia, where the entire country is in the grip of the famine. Vast swathes of Ethiopia and Kenya too are short of food. The drought and famine situation in East Africa is believed to be the worst in almost two decades. There is a shortage of electricity as well with rivers running dry. Industrial activity in these countries has shut down. Climate and food experts are drawing attention to a worrying pattern in East Africa. The drought cycle here is shrinking sharply. Rains used to fail here every nine or ten years some years ago. Now the region is confronted by failure of rains and drought every two or three years. This has implications for food security. It gives governments and people less time to recover from one drought and prepare for another by building up food stocks.

At the best of times, the international community has been tight-fisted when it comes to extending humanitarian help to Africa. Donors have often blamed endemic corruption here for their reluctance to provide help to the continent. Assistance this year has been even more limited with recession biting into aid budgets. But this stinginess has to go. We cannot look the other way when hundreds of thousands die of starvation and thirst. Moreover, reports indicate that conflict over scarce food and water is turning explosive. Anger with governments that are unable to tackle the food shortage could trigger violent uprisings. Security experts are warning that the drought is likely to strengthen the al-Qaeda linked Shabab movement in south Somalia. It is in everyone’s interest that mass starvation and anger is averted.

Food insecurity in Africa has structural causes and these have to be tackled if starvation should be prevented over the long run. Farmers are under pressure to grow cash crops for export. This has reduced food grain sufficiency of several poor countries. Farmers are further debilitated by low market prices for cotton, sugar and other African farm exports and inequitable international trading arrangements. Rural Africa would be in a better position to survive droughts and famines if it had a stronger food security safety net.

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