Tristan Clements, Country Program Manager with World Vision Australia’s Humanitarian Emergency Affairs team provides an insight into the complexities of drought and its impact on vulnerable communities.
Horn of Africa Drought
We don’t hear a whole lot of news about Africa compared to, say, the Footy season, but what we do hear is generally bad. If it’s not war, it’s corruption, and if it’s not corruption, then it’s famine. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire continent of Africa exists on the brink of perpetual misery. But that's far from the truth.
Yet there’s drought in the Horn of Africa. Again. It seems there is often a drought in Africa, with pictures of starving African children on the news. What’s all the aid money doing, and why can’t Africa stop having drought? What’s the Horn of Africa anyway?
Africa is a Continent
‘Africa’ is a vast, diverse area. Although we refer to ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’ as some homogenous unit, it’s a laughable practice that indicates we have a lot more learning to do. Just as lumping Koreans, Filipinos, Javanese, Sri Lankans, Afghans and Siberians under the title ‘Asians’ - and expecting to be able to refer to Asians as a single group - is a massive oversimplification, so too is lumping the peoples of Kwazulu, Hausa, Tuareg, Zagawa, Kamba and Berber together.
When Africa was colonised during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European powers took 10,000 distinct political groupings and turned them into 40 colonies, mostly without any respect for pre-existing boundaries.
So when you hear somebody talking about ‘famine in Africa’, it’s worth reflecting that that doesn’t tell you very much.
Some parts of Africa are very productive, agriculturally, and industrially. Others are more marginal. This is all to do with the same nexus of factors (governance, skill sets, soils, climate, investment, market forces, etc.) that affect productivity anywhere else in the world, including Australia.
There is a region of Africa, known as Sub-Saharan Africa (‘Africa south of the Sahara’) which is particularly susceptible to drought. This east-west band of nations includes places like Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger, Mali and Mauritania (and more besides), all of which have experienced significant food shortages at various points over the last couple of decades, and many of which have appeared in the headlines.
The Horn of Africa, in particular, is the easternmost portion of the continent that juts out into the Indian Ocean (giving it its name) and which consists of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea. The Horn is home to the hottest place on earth (Afar region, Ethiopia) and regularly experiences erratic rains. Large areas have an abundance of rocky soils and a post-volcanic geology.
Drought and Floods
The climate in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (as far as people are concerned, and which is the same in most other parts of the world) is dictated by the interplay between sunshine and rainfall- namely, what allows crops to grow. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the sun is very strong (it’s a tropical zone) which dries out plants and soils. By contrast, the rains are unreliable and unpredictable. This is just part of the characteristics of the natural environment in that portion of the world.
What this looks like is as follows: Some years, the rains are great, and some years, they don’t show up. Some years they are on time, and some years they are early (so they arrive before seeds are planted) and some years they are late (so by the time they get there, the seedlings have all died off). Some years they’re very light and insufficient to counter the drying out of the sun, and some years they are so heavy that they flood the ground and wash away topsoil and crops.
The unreliability is very localised. Rain can be very focused, such that one farmer’s field receives just the right amount of rain, while another not even a mile away receives none. In areas of low rainfall (less than 400mm per year) the year’s rain may come in just one or two storms - so any variation in how those storms occur and where the water lands has a huge effect on individual farmers.
What we end up with is a pattern that in any given year, at any given time, some families are likely to be doing just fine, and others will be facing food shortages (with knock-on effects to their income and other ways of sustaining themselves). In good years, there are fewer of these families in situations of hardship. In bad years, more and more families end up struggling to survive. This is what’s happening in the Horn of Africa at the moment.
There are both rural and urban populations across Africa. As a rule, it’s the rural populations who are most affected by failed rains, and this includes both farmers, and herders (‘pastoralists’) who rely on rain-fed grazing land for their cattle. However the impact will be felt across a country when the situation gets really bad, as it affects traders and shopkeepers, and affects the entire economy.
Famine, Food Crisis and Malnutrition
We hear the word ‘famine’ a lot, particularly in reference to Africa and food-related problems. In fact, the word is often overused. Famine is a very specific event - a really, really terrible one - in which we see lots of people of all ages dying as a result of food shortages. For the United Nations, the word has a technical definition of two or more people out of 100,000 dying each day, and acute malnutrition among a third of young children.
In reality, famines don’t happen much anymore. There were a handful in the late 20th century, most notably in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan but it’s been quite a long time since we’ve seen a real famine.
So it is with great significance that the United Nations is now using the word ‘famine’ to describe the food crisis in parts of East Africa.
What we are more accustomed to seeing are food crises and nutrition crises. These are periods of either food shortage (low volume of food available) or malnutrition (poor nutritional intake), which are often (but not always) related. Drought tends to cause food shortages. This will often result in malnutrition in some (but not necessarily all) parts of a population. Those most at risk of malnutrition include children and infants, pregnant and nursing mothers, the elderly, and those who have chronic sickness, particularly but not exclusively HIV and AIDS. Malnutrition, however, can also result from poor feeding practices, disease epidemics, and other factors which are compounded by but not necessarily caused by food shortages.
Malnutrition kills, but most of the time it kills only the vulnerable, and most notably, young children. On its own, malnutrition alone is rarely the cause of death, but it makes children vulnerable to disease such as malaria, measles, diarrhoeal disease or chest infections. Disease and malnutrition then interact in a vicious cycle such that as children get sick, they are less able to absorb essential nutrients and therefore get weaker and more susceptible to the illness.
It is among young children (under the age of 5) that we see the earliest casualties in a food and nutrition crisis, but the death of children by malnutrition does not in itself constitute a famine. Rather, as was seen in Niger in 2005 and 2010, it causes a nutrition crisis.
This is also where we are at with much of the Horn of Africa right now. Children are dying, now. Emergency thresholds for malnutrition are internationally recognised as 15% of a population of children being acutely malnourished. In some parts of the Somali population, as many as 30% of children are malnourished. Fresh data from the UN suggests that we are now facing famine in parts of the region.
The failing rains (in some cases for the 3rd consecutive season) have caused crops to die, cattle to die, and people to flee their homes in search of food and water. This is coupled in Somalia with an ongoing civil war that is making access to and support for these populations very difficult. Many are congregating in overcrowded relief camps where they are more susceptible to the spread of disease.
All this means that, while we’re not technically looking at a ‘famine’ across the entire region right now, we’re seeing food shortages and a malnutrition crisis that is extremely alarming, and which observers are now saying could be precursors to famine conditions. And in the worst-hit areas of southern Somalia, we have already reached the point of famine. Agencies like World Vision have been responding to this crisis in the Horn of Africa for many months - ever since it became clear that a crisis was building - and now, as the situation worsens, continue to provide as much support as possible.
Fragility and Cyclical Emergencies
Of course, what we’re looking at here is a short-term crisis. But why does it keep happening?
We need to understand something called ‘vulnerability’. Vulnerability is the extent to which a person, family or community is at risk of slipping into a crisis such that they can’t meet their own needs. For example, a family living in the suburb of an Australian city might have two parents both earning a cash income, getting certain tax benefits from the government, with social services such as police protection, medical services and the rule of law. They can buy food from a supermarket which is sourced from all over the world. If the rains in their area fail, they are unlikely to be affected. If one or other of the parents loses their job, their income may reduce, but they will also be able to draw on unemployment benefits. There are legal protections in place, however, to ensure that they can’t easily lose their job. In this sense, this family has a lot of safety nets, and is not very vulnerable.
If we take a rural family in the Middle Juba region of Somalia, we find a family which depends on a mix of cereal crops, garden vegetables and a small herd of goats to sustain them. What little extra produce they have they sell for cash which can be used to buy household goods, farming or gardening equipment, or pay for medical bills at a local health clinic. They live in an area without a functioning state, so there is an ongoing risk of violence, and health and education services are few. There are no insurance companies or national unemployment benefits, so if they cannot sustain their livelihoods independently, they can rely only on their extended family and community networks for help. If the rains fail in their area, their crops die, they run out of food, and their animals may die also. They don’t have any source of income. If their community is all affected in the same way, they may be forced to relocate to an urban area as squatters looking for paid labour, or may move to a relief camp. This family has few reliable safety nets, and is highly vulnerable. We can also say that their context is very fragile.
It’s for this reason that the unreliability of rainfall that we talked earlier has such a big and regular impact. The vulnerability of families and communities across the Sub-Saharan African region is quite high, so when rains do fail, it has a disproportionate impact on those families. Food supplies dwindle, children become malnourished, and families are forced to relocate. Crises develop regularly, often in different places from year to year, but from the outside it can feel very repetitive.
Short-term versus Long-term
The challenge, then, is knowing how to both deal with the short-term needs of people facing acute food shortages or malnutrition (namely, to stop them dying), and also deal with the long-term issues of vulnerability and fragility as a result of their context.
Aid agencies like World Vision have to employ a double-edged approach to these sorts of emergencies. On the one hand we launch emergency responses to ensure that people in these countries don’t die over the coming weeks and months, using interventions like feeding programs for children, and providing health and clean water services to limit the spread of disease.
On the other hand, we engage in long-term projects with communities in vulnerable areas, including Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Through these projects we help farmers develop better ways of growing crops in times of poorer rainfall; we teach mothers how to keep their children free of disease; and we develop systems that help families maintain more diverse and secure sources of income so that if crops do fail, they have something to fall back on.
This isn’t an easy process, and takes years to complete. We’re all still learning and adapting as we find the best way to support these communities. And we need your help to keep doing it.We also need your understanding, which is why we’re happy you’ve taken the time to learn more about this issue. The more people in Australia understand how these crises happen and read beyond the headlines, the more we hope you’ll be motivated to work with us to solve these problems.
Tristan Clements is a Country Program Manager with World Vision Australia’s Humanitarian Emergency Affairs team.
Since joining World Vision mid 2003, Tristan has worked on many emergencies and also been deployed to the emergency response for Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Tristan has a Bachelor degree in Geography and a Masters in Development and Environment. Tristan’s expertise spans over emergency response, South Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean.