Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Horn of Africa famine as much about geopolitics as drought

The current food crisis in the Horn of Africa is a humanitarian emergency, but it has a distinctly geopolitical dimension, say experts who follow the region.

Although the immediate problem facing the 11 million people aid agencies say need help is a shortage of food, the causes of the crisis take in a broader spectrum of problems affecting the region, including climate change, agricultural policy, military conflicts and the effects of global markets on local economies.

Much has been made of the fact that parts of the region have experienced the driest year in decades because of two poor rainy seasons, but droughts are not rare in this part of Africa; nor are food shortages. The Horn (which includes Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda) is the poorest region on the continent, with more than 40 per cent of its population of over 160 million living in areas prone to extreme food shortages.

And while the population of the region has doubled since the 1970s, food production has not kept up with that growth, says Abbas Gnamo, an Ethiopian-born academic who teaches African politics and conflict studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University and has worked as a consultant in the region.

Although the majority of the region's population depends on agriculture for their livelihood, farmers lack access to machinery and fertilizers, and agricultural productivity remains low. This means that even in the years when farmers get enough rain, the amount of crops they produce is very small, and they don't have any food to put in reserve for the times when there is a drought or other unforeseen shock.

"One of the problems for the Horn of Africa is the food crisis is becoming more or less chronic," Gnamo said. (more)