On July 20, 2011 the United Nations announced that in parts of Somalia, food security had deteriorated so significantly that two regions were now considered to be in famine, and more than 3.7 million people were in desperate need of assistance. This was the first major famine to be declared since 2000, and became the most prominent evidence of the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa at the time.
To many in the humanitarian aid community, this was confirmation of what had been witnessed on the ground for some time. Most major aid organizations had been operating in this region for years and had described the worsening situation for months. In fact, a whole system dedicated to monitoring food accessibility – the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) – had sounded warnings of famine based on a number of indicators in the region for over a year.
Fast forward to August 2012, and the cruel cycle is poised to repeat itself again. FEWS Net reports that about 16 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda are facing “Stressed (IPC Phase 2) to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) levels of food insecurity,” due to conflict, poor rains, high food prices, and poor humanitarian access in some regions (such as in the Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states of Sudan, where humanitarian access is so poor that some agencies – such as Médecins Sans Frontières – have been forced to leave altogether).
In the Sahel Region – an impoverished area of West Africa consisting of Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Chad – an estimated 18 million people are affected by a growing food crisis, again the result of the interaction of horrific circumstances of drought, conflict, high food prices, and extreme poverty. A rapid nutrition assessment conducted in Niger by World Vision in early 2012 found rates of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) averaging 14.4%, with a high of 17.1% in one region. GAM is an important, though late, indicator of malnutrition and is one of the criteria used in declaring a humanitarian emergency, when the prevalence of GAM in a population reaches or exceeds 15%. If the World Vision assessment is representative of the rest of the region, the Sahel food crisis is dangerously close to tipping into a massive regional humanitarian emergency. Many would argue that breaching the emergency threshold would only be epidemiologic confirmation of what is already happening.
And so, for another summer, the world is left watching and waiting for an already deplorable situation to breach an emergency threshold, triggering a global – though likely muted – humanitarian response. We saw this last year in the Horn of Africa, where the world waited and sought to manage the crisis, rather than the risks. The writing was on the wall, there, too – In Somalia, for instance, diesel prices increased 45%, while local cereal prices rose 240% in some regions of the country and 100% in Ethiopia over the year leading up to the declaration of famine. This year, food prices in West Africa appear to be relatively stable, though are generally much higher than their seasonal averages, suggesting that high prices are here to stay, a factor influenced by rising fuel prices and pest infestations. Add to this the ongoing conflict in northern Mali, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, and poor rains that have resulted in poor crop yields, and a broader picture of the looming emergency begins to reveal itself.
And yet, the world appears poised once again to sit and wait for the situation to deteriorate significantly before we launch major humanitarian interventions. There are several important factors to note in this, the first being that building awareness is critical for building support for the relief efforts. In the Horn of Africa food crisis last year, donations and media coverage only picked up significantly after the United Nations declared the area to be in a state of famine, at which point the emergency had already been unfolding for months.
A declaration of famine may galvanize support, but waiting for a famine to launch a massive intervention across several countries hardly seems practical nor ethical. A declaration of famine is based on more than just food or malnutrition indicators; There must be evidence of three conditions in a given area, specifically: food shortages with a limited ability to cope, greater than 30% prevalence of global acute malnutrition, and crude mortality rates (deaths) equal to or greater than 2 deaths per 10,000 people per day. In essence, the declaration of famine means that people have died and will continue to die without major humanitarian intervention.
The world is faced with an important opportunity: Intervene now and avert famine in the Sahel region. Acting now must first address the immediate threats to life for the population, then focus on coordinated, sustained, long-term development beginning with agricultural and livestock support in order to benefit from future rains and to maximize the growing season and lead toward self-sufficiency. While western assistance should be welcomed, African countries should be playing the leading role in averting famine in the region and contributing to the development of local and regional knowledge and practices to encourage enhanced food security. Changes to agricultural sectors are desperately needed in order to move toward climate-resilient farming practices and away from export-dominated crops, in favour of crops for local food production. There are options for agricultural reform, and several lessons-learned that should be shared. In the immediate sense, however, what is needed are emergency interventions to ensure that the ongoing crisis in the Sahel region doesn’t tip from an emergency into a famine. And that’s a call to action that all countries should be listening to.
Further reading: A Dangerous Delay, a joint paper between Save the Children and Oxfam.