Advocating for the active Engagement of the Youth in the Agricultural Value Chain

19 - 23 September 2011
Ezulwini, Swaziland

Food Crisis: Why is Africa Starving?

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Article content: 

Climate change impacts, political and economic irresponsibility have combined to plunge the Horn of Africa into the worst food crisis in decades Christoph Mueller, Head of the German Red Cross in Eastern Africa, explains how to fight famine.

East Africa now faces its worst food crisis since the 1980s. How has this happened?
It is a combination of natural, political and economic reasons.

Due to changing weather patterns as a consequence of global climate change rain has become quite unpredictable. Large parts of Somalia, northern Kenya and Ethiopia didn’t get the necessary rainfall which has had a devastating effect on the agriculture.

The political instability in the Horn of Africa region has lead to a massive influx of Somali refugees into Kenya and Ethiopia. Right now, more than 9,000 people from Somalia cross the borders of Kenya every day.

General economic under-development, combined with unusually high transportation and fuel prices, plays an additional role.

Why is Africa so vulnerable to climate change?
Africa’s agriculture largely depends on the seasonal rainfall. It’s needed for the seeding and harvesting seasons which take place at a certain time of year. If these rains arrive a couple of months early or late, the entire harvest in certain regions is lost. Plant diseases and frequent parasite infestations increase these risks.

There are also quite a number of crops that depend on a very specific micro-climate, for example in the high altitudes of Ethiopia. If the weather patterns cannot guarantee this climate, it leads to severe droughts and food shortages.

Changes in the ecological balance have a devastating effect because African farmers can’t compensate by using artificial pesticides and fertilizers.

Deforestation is often cited as a man-made cause of the famine. Why is that?
The increased need for firewood among the nomadic, urban and rural populations has a negative impact on the natural environment.

The high numbers of Somali refugees coming to eastern Kenya cause a massive deforestation around the refugee camps, along with sinking water levels, air and soil pollution, and desertification.

The use of charcoal for cooking and heating is a chronic problem in the Horn of Africa and it is very difficult to address because local people simply cannot afford other fuel for cooking.

Besides fleeing from the crisis what can the affected African people actually do?
In conflict-prone South and Central Somalia, a stable government and peace are the only solutions.

In Northern Kenya and Ethiopia the situation is less grim. The local people need to change their traditional agriculture, for example with the use of more weather resistant seeds. Training in modified farming techniques, food storage and marketing are also essential.

Above all, they need to harvest water and construct proper irrigation systems to build up water reserves.

How do the water saving methods work?
One way is digging more wells but a declining groundwater level makes this harder and harder.

The Red Cross is promoting the construction of so-called shallow wells and water dens that allow for the collection of surface water for animals and fields.

The use of solar energy and windmills to pump and distribute this water are environmentally friendly technologies to reduce the use of diesel fuel.

For human consumption, these waters need to be filtered. Local community action groups build water filters using locally available clay. They look like flower pots and can filter 1.5 liters of drinking water in one hour.

In Somaliland, for example, the Red Cross is encouraging the people to form small community enterprises to manufacture those filters and sell them to other villages and communities.

Can Africa deal with the crisis on its own?
International humanitarian aid will be unavoidable, especially for people fleeing Somalia. The refugee numbers continue to increase.

Local and national authorities must control violent conflicts related to reduced resources, cattle rustling and migration.

People in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are already used to these periodical droughts and weather-related crises. They need to be further trained and educated in disaster risk reduction. Their cultural and local knowledge is essential and beneficial.

A combination of emergency-based relief and community development is necessary.

What can the rest of the world do to help?
It is key to support humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross with financial aid because they know best what is needed and can buy relief items on local markets in Africa thereby supporting national economies.

Setting up an early warning system is essential. Cross-border cooperation among African states and humanitarian agencies needs to be strengthened. The Hyogo framework of the UN for disaster risk reduction and the Millennium Development Goals serve as excellent frameworks.

So what will East Africa’s future be like?
The East African governments will have to develop very strict and consistent strategies to push their economies, to reduce poverty, and to adapt to climate change.

That’s nothing the industrialized world can do for them. We can only help to put these strategies into place. Companies doing business with Africa also play an important role.

Africa’s civil societies are already becoming more and more confident. Legal conditions must guarantee their civil rights to participate in development like urban and rural planning.

It is a mix of the African conscience, global business ethics and international cooperation that will eventually pave the way for improvement.