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Aid Agencies Saw Drought Coming in East Africa, So Why Couldn't They Help Prevent Famine?

What could have prevented the famine conditions in Somalia? The first thing is to understand why the situation got so bad.

Kenya is not a lush country. Rains falls steadily and often heavily in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu, the three main cities and the best known to tourists. But 80% of the country is made up of semi-arid or arid land. In these parts of Kenya, life is hard.

Few places are less hospitable than Dadaab, a once tiny town in the far north-east. The sun is fierce, and swirling winds whip up the fine sand underfoot. The vegetation consists mainly of thorn trees. The town began to grow in the early 90s when Somalia descended into chaos and refugees starting pouring across the border, about 50 miles to the north. A refugee settlement designed for 90,000 people soon held more than 100,000, then 200,000, then 300,000. By late last year, Dadaab was close to overtaking Kisumu as Kenya's third largest "city". Then the steady stream of refugees crossing the border became a river, and then a flood. By early July this year, more than 1,500 Somalis were arriving at Dadaab's three camps daily, swelling the population towards 400,000.


In previous years, people were fleeing conflict. Now the main driver is hunger. A savage drought gripped large swaths of the Horn of Africa this year, as it has virtually every other year for the past decade. The drylands of Ethiopia and Kenya sit in the heart of the drought zone, along with southern Somalia. But only in Somalia were huge numbers of people on the move. And unlike in neighbouring countries, where nomads were the hardest hit, many of those fleeing Somalia were farmers from the grain basket region, who had enjoyed a bumper harvest last year and for whom Dadaab's desert-like scenery would have been totally alien.

The refugees who reached Dadaab were in a desperate way, but better than those they left behind.

"People were dying there," Hawa Ore, a young mother who had just arrived in Dadaab after a 20-day trek, told me. That same day, 20 July, the UN announced that tens of thousands of people in Somalia had already died from hunger-related causes. Famine conditions now existed in two regions of the country, and it was likely they would soon spread to the entire south of Somalia, it said. The declaration caused alarm and anger.

"How can we have people dying like flies of hunger in 2011?" said Luca Alinovi, an economist who lived in Somalia in the late 80s and now runs the Somalia country office of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, based in Nairobi. "It is so unacceptable. Famine is a middle ages issue."

That may be true, but famine has long stalked the Horn of Africa. The most well known crisis occurred in Ethiopia in 1984-85, when hundreds of thousands of lives were lost because of hunger. Then, as now, the country was hit by severe drought, but what pushed people over the edge were the government's disastrous agricultural policies and civil war. At the same time many thousands died in neighbouring Sudan, which was also under a dictatorship that refused to acknowledge the scale of the food crisis. As it does this time, the famous theory of Indian economist Amartya Sen held true: famines do not occur in functioning democracies.

The international response to the Ethiopian famine was extraordinary, particularly in the UK, and the Live Aid fundraising efforts generated tens of millions of pounds that helped to save countless lives. The scale of the disaster also led to efforts to ensure it never recurred. Among the most important of these was a famine early warning system created by the US to help anticipate food crises, allowing governments and policymakers to respond.

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