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Demystifying famine


On 20 July the United Nations declared that the situations in two regions of Somalia, southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, are to be recognised as famine, and called for a concerted and rapid humanitarian response. While the carbon tax and the travails of Rupert Murdoch have been grabbing headlines, a humanitarian emergency of potentially disastrous proportions has been taking its toll.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are now 11.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance across the Horn of Africa, and almost half the population of Somalia — around 3.7 million people — is in 'crisis'. More than 166,000 Somalis have fled into neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya.

According to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon, to prevent this situation transforming into a nation-wide famine, about $300 million will be required in emergency aid over the next two months.

Equipped with these figures and the occasional pictures that flicker across television screens, it can be hard to really understand what famine is: why does it arise and what do people endure under famine conditions? And why is it so important that a situation is named officially as famine?

Famines are — bluntly — manifestations of intense starvation leading to substantial mortality. According to the UN definition, famine is characterised by people eating significantly less than 2100 kilocalories of food per day, instances of wasting in more than 30 per cent of children and two deaths per 10,000 people every day.

If one were to believe the news cycle, this crisis in Somalia would seem to have arisen without warning. But it is in fact the product of a pattern which has revisited Eastern Africa throughout the last century; a pattern of unstable food supply, drought, crop failure and endemic undernutrition. It is part of a pattern we have had plenty of opportunity to observe and recognise.

In fact, Eastern Africa is historically well acquainted with famine, with the first recording of famine in the region dating back to the ninth century in Ethiopia. And in the 20th century, successive famines occurred in Ethiopia and the Ogaden region during the 1970s–1980s when around 1.5 million lives were lost as a direct result of war and starvation.

Famines in this region have generally occurred against a background of endemic malnutrition and low food consumption. Because of the small scale and relatively rudimentary nature of Somali and Ethiopian agriculture, farmers have rarely produced surpluses which might be marketed.

With this low food productivity, the rural population of certain provinces of Somalia satisfies its minimal subsistence needs for only about six to nine months of the year. For the remaining months there occurs the yearly phenomenon of pre-harvest hunger which, in rural communities, often leads to diets deficient in protein, calcium, vitamin A and various other essential dietary elements.

These tenuous circumstances are rendered even more fragile by the fact that rural incomes depend on rain-fed agriculture which, in the different regions of Somalia, is variable and unpredictable. Rural communities in Somalia and Ethiopia are consistently vulnerable to climate shocks or political disruptions — the margin by which they avoid hunger on a day to day basis is extremely thin.

Over the last decade in Somalia rural communities in particular have been assaulted by a combination of shocks which have eroded or obliterated this margin altogether. In the first instance, long and short-term climate irregularities have plagued Somali agricultural households.

Agricultural life in Somalia centres on two main rainy seasons, the Deyr and the Gu wet seasons. These periods of rainfall are separated by periods of dryness during which the harvests are brought in. Recently, regions of Somalia have witnessed successive failures of the seasonal rains, which have led to crop failure and the diminishment of agricultural yields.

This raises the worrying spectre of the disastrous famine in Ethiopia in 1984–86 which was preceded, between 1979–1983, by successive failure of the seasonal rains (the belg and kerempt rains). 

However, the famine in Somalia is not only the product of short-term drought. It occurs in the context of a decades-long drought that has affected a swathe of sub-Sahelian Africa since the early '70s. This period has witnessed prolonged pattern of rainfall below the long-term mean. The largest negative anomalies in the early '80s preceded the famines in Wollo and Tigray provinces of Ethiopia.

If this wasn't enough, conflict and political division have hamstrung efforts to reduce people's vulnerability to starvation. Ongoing violence between the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabab insurgent group and the Federal Transitional Government has not only led to social and political collapse but has also disrupted the operation of markets. So, just as rural households are growing more reliant on markets for food (due to the failure of their own crops), markets are themselves breaking down.

In this, another comparison can be made with Ethiopia. Against a background of continuing climate stress, Ethiopia experienced continuous internal and external warfare throughout the '70s and '80s, which made normal economic activity difficult. This arguably contributed to the emergence of famine conditions and certainly intensified the suffering of the rural population once those conditions arose.

In 1984 thousands of people sat starving in the Ethiopian town of Korem. They had gathered there from the surrounding regions in order to seek relief. But Korem quickly became a death camp, with the mortality rate in excess of 100 people per day. Although international aid was received, it was not enough to stem the tide of starvation. Only after BBC journalist Michael Buerk and his cameraman Mohamad Amin filmed the dying at Korem did international aid efforts gain momentum.

The crisis in Somalia has all the ingredients of another disastrous famine. If UN member states do not continue to pledge — and deliver — aid, the inhuman scenes of Korem could easily reappear. 

Ben ColeridgeBen Coleridge studies Arts at the University of Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Ben Colerdige, famine, Somalia, Bakool, Lower Shabelle, Ethiopia, Kenya



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Existing comments

$300 million? About three of our new jet fighters.

Or one third of a non-working Colins Class submarine.

Or an afternoons war against Afghan citizens by the Christian nations of the West.

Or about half the money wasted on the promotion of evangelical Christianity in Australia's public schools through the NSCP scam.

Or the one year cost of keeping old politicians in the manner to which they became accustomed during their self-serving times in our parliaments.

Peanuts! Why the panic about gathering up this pocket-money sized amount?

Harold Wilson | 26 July 2011  

A first rate analysis. Ironically,last year the W. Sahel had its wettest season for years, with the R. Volta having its highest flow rate for decades. (New Scientist).
Any idea how the population in Ethiopia and Somali has increased since 1984?.

Anthony Kaye | 26 July 2011  

Anthony, here is a graph from the World Bank showing Ethiopian population growth since 1960: http://tinyurl.com/4y54lmw

And here is the same for Somalia: http://tinyurl.com/3f9xb7c

Benedict Coleridge | 26 July 2011  

When looked at critically just about all recurring problems in the world are as a result of bad management, bad leadership and bad politicans. The horn of Africa will always be a basket case whilst such bad leadership remains there. Israel has less than half the rainfall of Ethopia each year yet is able to make the desert bloom. A perfect example of good management resulting in substantial investment. Who wants to invest in a basket case?

Bill Spence | 26 July 2011  

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