The Horn of Africa Food Crisis

You may have heard on the news this week about the deepening food crisis in Ethiopia and across the Horn of Africa. Reports of food shortages across Africa may initially appear common place – but particular attention should be paid to this unique crisis for a variety of reasons.  The crisis has been described as the worst food crisis the world has seen since World War 2.

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World wheat prices as an indicator of wheat availability. Note the incredibly high wheat prices during the 2008 food crisis (source).

This is puzzling given global food production is at one of the highest points since this time (see above). Clearly then, the problem isn’t just a shortage of food, and the solution can’t be just increased production. The current problem of food insecurity in the Horn of Africa is complex, and will evidently require a revolutionary approach to development agriculture in a very short space of time. So this week for AgriEducate’s Development Agriculture Wednesday we take a look into the current Horn of Africa food crisis with a focus on Ethiopia.

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Horn of Africa – the area currently impacted by severe food shortages (source).

The Situation
The Facts:

  • Up to 23 million people are at risk of starvation
  • Described as the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II
  • Experts predict this crisis has the potential to become one of the worst famines in human history
  • The United Nations’ definition of famine is when 20% of a population faces extreme food shortages, 30% of people experience acute malnutrition, and at least two people per 10,000 die every day (in Australia that would look like 2400 people a day).

The United Nations announced in March that 20 million people were on the cusp of famine in 4 countries in the Horn of Africa. Cuts to emergency food aid at the end of the month, could mean the number affected could increase suddenly by 2 million people. The Ethiopian Government has just updated its figures for the number of people in need of emergency food aid from 5.6 million to 7.7 million. To put this in perspective, that is the equivalent of about one third the population of Australia who are on the cusp of famine.

The story so far
Ethiopia has recently emerged as a powerhouse of Africa, rising as a leader in economics, trade, migration in-take, and showing booming infrastructure (particularly in cities such as Addis Ababa). This was all a positive sign considering the devastating drought of the 1980s that rippled throughout the country. However, last year the Highland region faced severe drought which caused hunger to affect 10.2 million people. The government has been praised for their response which managed to avert famine in the area. However, now the Lowland region (bordering Somalia) is facing drought, but funds have dried up given last year’s huge spending on drought mitigation.

The drought is believed to be caused by warming ocean temperatures in the Indian Ocean which have altered climatic conditions. Food production in the Lowland region was concentrated on nomadic herders. The lack of rain has caused the livestock numbers to deplete, and consequently, sparked food insecurity. Nomads are now stationed in camps which receive food aid from the government, foreign governments, and international agencies. The situation is worsened given that Ethiopia absorbs large numbers of refugees displaced within the region as a result of famine or conflict. To make things worse, the camps now face cholera outbreaks.

The Current Problem
The problem is now two fold. Firstly, the initial problem is that such a huge number of people are now relying on food aid – and the current amount of aid will only last until the end of June. Secondly, the fundamental problem is that the system of agricultural production (nomadic herds) is losing feasibility given changed climatic conditions and unpredictable weather. This means an incredible agricultural change might be on the cards in the region.

Around 17 million people in the Horn of Africa now rely on food aid. It is believed that Ethiopia requires at least AUD$1 billion in aid funding to confront the crisis. During the Highland crisis last year the Ethiopian government spent $400 million to prevent famine. This year, with the Lowland crisis, the Ethiopian spending has dropped to only $47 million. This is mostly believed to be caused by the exhausted budget from last year’s big expenditure. Mitiku Kassa, head of Ethiopia’s National Disaster Risk Management Commission has said “last year, we spent a lot of money to confront this type of drought… It is very challenging”.

Foreign aid funding is also drying up. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) is short $121 million for this year’s operations in Ethiopia. Food rations have already dropped to 80%, and it is expected that further cuts will be made by the end of June. The predictions are that rations will be cut to just 420 calories per person – or about 1 burger per person per day. This is not adequate energy intake for any healthy person, and it is almost certain other health problems will be sparked if these cuts are made. Many claim this is a result of donor fatigue, whilst others argue the numbers are simply too overwhelming for donors to be able to manage.

Furthermore, the US (the world’s largest funder of aid), has proposed significant cuts in their next budget to foreign aid. This includes a 30% cut to USAID (the main International Development agency of the US), and the total elimination of Title II For Peace – a $1.7billion loss to global food assistance.

Positive Responses
Amidst all the bad news, it’s important to shed some light on the positives responses that have also resulted. Turkish based organisations (such as Turkish Red Crescent and Turkey Diyanet Foundation) have shipped over 60,000 tons of humanitarian aid to affected countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. This comes during the Ramadan month which symbolises generosity and solidarity.

Australia, despite recent cuts to the aid budget, pledged an initial $68 million towards the crisis, and Julie Bishop announced last month that this will be expanded by $19 million.

Changing Climate
The Horn of Africa could be described as a magnifying glass showing the consequences of a changing climate globally for one small region of the world. The drought of 2015-16 in Ethiopia’s Highlands is largely attributed to the El-Nino ocean warming in the Pacific. The UN World Meteorological Organisation has said this week that there is a 50-60% chance that the Pacific will again face strong warming trends, sending radar alarms once again to effected areas – such as Ethiopia’s Highlands.

Herders, such as those with such a large role in Ethiopia’s food production systems, are said to have one of the smallest carbon footprints, but are also probably one of the most affected groups by climate change. McDonough says “You talk to any farmer, how are the rains now compared to 20-30 years ago, they see a difference in their lifetimes, particularly the older ones”. This is because droughts are now more frequent and more severe.

The Response for Agricultural Development
Michael Windfuhr from the German Institute of Human Rights has said that “the neglect of agricultural development is one of the main reasons why nothing is changing”, particularly referencing shortages of agrarian counselling, infrastructure and research. Windfuhr notes that in the 1980s, 20% of Assistance in International Development (AID) went towards agricultural development, but by 2005 this has dropped to 3-4%.

The current crisis, whilst deeply saddening, will introduce a new pivotal role and emphasis on development agriculture, and should present some key future evolutions in the area for longer term developments. Keep in mind that it was the post WW2 food security crisis that largely pushed the Green Revolution for developing countries to become self-sufficient in food production, and the 2007-08 Global Food Crisis that expanded economic opportunities for developing country farmers to use microfinance in systems such as those provided by the Grameen Bank. History shows us that the solutions to these global challenges are in innovation, technology, and creativity. One of the great things about Development Agriculture is that people from all backgrounds and disciplines can contribute to it, and in doing so, save millions of lives.

Now, with this huge crisis at present, it is crucial that people from all areas – those in agriculture, economics, politics, science, law, business, etc – turn our thinking caps on to what innovative ideas we can come up with that will benefit global food production in the long term. With a rapidly changing climate, we need rapidly changing strategies to respond. The Ethiopian food crisis demands a stronger role than ever for development agriculture in all fields, and shows why agricultural development is so important. Agrieducate would like to send our deepest sympathies to those affected by this crisis, thank those working towards alleviating the crisis, and encourage people to follow the situation as it develops.

Cover image source

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