A slow response to the warning signs, a changing climate, changing land patterns, and political instability all contributed to the famine in east Africa.
My attention was caught by the softly-spoken voice of the interviewer asking “but given what you knew, why was no action taken to prevent this?”; who knew what and when is a key theme of British political news at the moment but the hapless politician being interviewed in Kenya was not being asked to account for links to papers who were hacking mobile phone voicemails.
He was being grilled on why northern Kenya, along with southern Ethiopia and south-central Somalia, has seen a drought turn into the worst food crisis of this century.
A human tragedy is unfolding in East Africa which is inadequately expressed by the figures involved. Twelve million people across the region are affected. ‘Affected’ means they are in dire need of food, clean water and basic sanitation. ‘Affected’ means young children arriving in Dardaab refugee camp in Kenya dieing because they’re so weak after their journey.
It means teenage girls walking for two and a half days just to get a few jerry cans of water. And it means camps so full that families of ten live in a shelter a couple of metres wide whilst graves are dug in the midday heat.
So what could this Kenyan politician have known about a coming drought and what could the government have done? And could aid donors like the UK have done more to prevent this?
First the drought itself: It is severe, there is no denying that. 2011 is being recorded, in some areas, as the driest or second driest year on record since 1951. But it is possible to predict drought and early warning systems can work. Even in this particular case, assessments made at the end of 2010 strongly indicated that there would be a severe drought this year. Some agencies and donors did respond early but not enough action was taken to prevent vulnerable people and families from this crisis.
We also know that without urgent action climate change may exacerbate the food security challenges facing the region. While it is not possible at this stage to say whether or not the drought can be attributed to man-made climate change, communities in the region say that the seasons are changing.
The Borana communities in Ethiopia report that whereas droughts were recorded every six to eight years in the past, they now occur every two years, or sometimes every year. Resilience to weather events and the impact of climate change has to be built in to African governments’ and donor governments’ plans.
But the failure to anticipate and respond adequately to drought does not fully explain the extent of this crisis. This is not, at its root, an issue of weather. It is an issue of justice and politics and this drought has only come on top of a deeper crisis of poverty and marginalisation.
Pastoralists in particular in the region talk of having been made more vulnerable to drought because competition for land has forced them from grazing areas relied on through dry seasons. Smallholder food producers too are not invested in. For the Somali population this drought comes on the back of decade of conflict, no real government, and being denied access to humanitarian organisations.
Finally, the lack of food has been coupled with soaring food prices which mean that even available food is effectively restricted to those who can afford it.
Things could have been done to invest in these people so that their lives were not so destroyed by the drought. Pastoralist and agricultural land rights must be resolved, small-scale food producers invested in, and an awareness of the growing need to respond to changing seasons and climate must be built in to all policies. Food prices must be addressed nationally, regionally, and on a global scale.
So lessons need to be learned for the future but right now the priority has to be addressing the crisis as it unfolds. The UN has officially declared famine in parts of Somalia. This is the first famine of the 21st century and it means that many people are already dying.
There could be no clearer statement of the need to act. And yet UN appeals for the three affected countries are only 50% funded, with a total shortfall of nearly a billion US dollars. At the moment promises of new money are only going to add an extra $200 million to this.
Oxfam’s official reaction was that there has been a “catastrophic breakdown of the world’s collective responsibility to act”. We have also accused some rich country governments of ‘wilful neglect’. We don’t say such things lightly – but facts are facts.
The UK has so far led the way in pledging new aid and the collective response in the UK has been strong.
But to fill the funding black hole, other rich countries will need to step up and pay up. The European response has been surprisingly slow, with donors such as Italy not providing anything new. The French have been strong on words, calling for an Extraordinary G20 meeting on the issue, but have so far failed to back it up with any additional money. Other donors such as Germany and Spain have made initial contributions but they are just not enough.
That some of this could have been prevented is heart-breaking. But that donors are failing to act now – as the waste of human life is so apparent – is shocking.
Oxfam is appealing for £50 million in order to reach three million people with clean water, food and basic sanitation.
We are already helping many hundred thousand people with aid: cash to buy food, drilling boreholes, cleaning and rehabilitating existing water supply points, providing safe sanitation and health promotion and vaccinating livestock. Oxfam is providing both emergency aid to save lives now, and long term development to help communities in increasingly drought-prone regions cope. To donate go to Oxfam’s website.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.