Somalia famine: A history that cannot be allowed to repeat itself

July 20, 2012
Written by Austin Kennan, Regional Director, Horn of Africa, Concern Worldwide
Photo by Phil Moore

Famine is devastating to any country, but especially to those still dealing the aftershocks of previous hunger struggles. For Somalia, it’s going to take more than aid organizations to make change, rather the commitment of governments and the implantation of sustainable solutions.

One year ago, Somalia was gripped by famine. It was the first time since 1991 that famine was declared—it’s a term that is only used when more than 30 percent of children are suffering from acute malnutrition, the most dangerous and severe form of malnutrition. In these conditions, every minute counts.

While Somalia was the most affected, the crisis affected the whole region: successive failed rains in 2010 and 2011 sparked the worst drought the region had seen in 60 years. Some 12 million people across the Horn of Africa were in need of immediate humanitarian assistance. On the ground in the region since 1973, Concern Worldwide launched an emergency response that reached more than 797,000 people across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. This included not only food and nutrition relief for malnourished children, but also safe drinking water, as well as cash vouchers and livelihood opportunities so that people had money to access food, even as food prices skyrocketed.

While lives were saved, an estimated 100,000 were lost.

Initially, international donors and governments were slow to release funds, which undoubtedly led to a delay in the response, increased the cost of the relief effort, and most importantly, caused further suffering. If we have learned any lesson from the food crisis in the Horn of Africa, it is to heed the signs that come out of the early warning systems.

Sustained investments in medium and long-term interventions that reduce communities’ vulnerability to food insecurity are of vital importance. This is the only way to get out of the cycle of crisis-and-response. In Somaliland over the past year, Concern worked with farmers to rehabilitate eroded land and is implementing rainwater harvesting techniques so that disasters, when they strike, are minimized. We will be implementing similar programs in the region in the years to come.

Adirahman Abib Ibrahim, a local villager involved in the project said he had struggled for years through recurrent droughts to feed his eight children and to pay their school fees.

“Erosion swept away most of my three hectares of land, so I was left with only a third to cultivate,” he told Concern. “It meant I could only plant a single crop (sorghum), but a few bags of grain wasn’t enough for my family.”

After Concern provided training in soil conservation techniques, Adirahman was able to cultivate land previously too barren from years of erosion. “Water has reached parts of my land where it has never been for 20 years,” he said. He also introduced new crops and now plants not only sorghum, but also maize, cowpeas, watermelons, and tomatoes, some of which he intends to sell.

In Ethiopia, we are working with the government and local partners in the highland areas where 95 percent of the population is reliant on rain-fed agriculture. We are training farmers there on not only new planting methods, but also about the new ways to harvest and store crops and manage pests. Like Adirahman, many other farmers in Ethiopia are now growing a wider variety of food, including potatoes which have never been grown in highland areas.

One man, Getu Berihun, said his family was badly affected by the recent drought and he is determined to prevent that happening again. “I am willing to try many different crops,” he said. “It’s not easy to farm here, but my intention is to feed my family, so I will work hard to support them.”

The “short rains” in October and November in 2011 were mostly normal across the region, which helped to improve water supplies for livestock and land, and led to a good harvest in early 2012. However, the “long rains” from March to May 2012 have been poor in some areas, which will inevitably slow down recovery efforts and prevent a large number of displaced farmers from returning home to their hard and barren land.

On the one-year anniversary of the declaration of famine in Somalia, it is important to remember that cyclical crises will never be solved in 12 months.

Families remain vulnerable and continue to need our assistance during this crucial recovery period. We must remember the human stories behind the numbers, the needless suffering of literally millions in this region.

Guyo Ouampicha, a 45-year-old pastoralist from Marsabit in northern Kenya is a living example of how investments in the right programs can improve peoples’ chances in the long-term. As a young man, Guyo inherited his father’s goats and cattle. In 1984, after the devastating drought of that year, all of Guyo’s 70 cattle died, leaving him and his family with nothing. To get by, he resorted to selling firewood, charcoal, and wood for house-building so that he could feed his children, but it was difficult to make ends meet.

In 2010, Concern and its local partner set up a communal farming project in his village. Unlike others in northern Kenya who were hit hard by the drought and experienced livestock deaths and high malnutrition rates, the community in Madowadi were protected by their investment in a drip irrigation system. “I don’t think we in Madowadi will ever suffer the terrible effects of drought again now that we have been taught ways around it,” Guyo said.

While it is a good foundation, it is not enough for organizations like Concern to make investments in communities. Governments and donors must also put resources in place so that we can roll-out infrastructural projects that mitigate the worst effects of the region’s new normal of erratic weather patterns, droughts, floods, uncertain planting dates, and shorter growing periods. Without a long-term commitment that focuses on the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, the tragedy that unfolded in 2011 can and will very likely happen again.