From disaster to crisis – a long way

by Raphael Marcus, 2012/02/10

At the end of January 2012, the United Nations declared the famine in Somalia over. This statement, which is considered to be of overall importance by news agencies and the media, is based on criteria the values of which can be compiled by conducting research, measurements and statistic calculations. It is true that these numbers are correct – but the statement in itself is confusing and conceals many facts.

If, according to estimates, 350,000 acutely undernourished children are still affected by the famine in Somalia alone, how can it be assumed to be over? Photo: humedica/Katja Weber

According to the United Nations (UN), we talk of a famine (corresponds to phase 5 of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification IPC), if more than 20 percent of the households in a region suffer from extreme food scarcity, more than 30 percent of the people are undernourished and two in 10,000 persons die each day.

In Somalia, 2.3 million people are currently suffering from hunger – for the entire Horn of Africa, the number still amounts to almost 10 million children, women and men! In Somalia alone the number of acutely undernourished children is estimated to 350,000!

Ultimately, the famine has been downgraded to a humanitarian emergency situation (IPC phase 4), which continues to claim and destroy human lives on a daily basis. And apart from that we must not forget that a famine of the scale we have experienced and are experiencing will entail further disastrous consequences. Be it the misery of refugees, cholera epidemics, a loss of years of education, economic losses or other things.

Therefore, despite the UN statement, we have no reason to be optimistic, and by no means should we go so far as to congratulate ourselves. At the most we can say that we offered some relief and that the situation has probably improved since last summer – that is why humedica and other organisations are active in the countries in the first place.

But our work is far from being completed and any further positive forecasts would be far fetched, if not careless. Above all, when considering that the Al-Shabaab has lately prohibited the International Red Cross and other local and international organisations to offer active relief aid in Somalia.

The ongoing drought is an important reason for the famine, but nevertheless only one of numerous causes. Photo: humedica/Katja Weber

A famine develops over a period of several years, in which above all food production and drought management are neglected, conflicts arise and no action is taken despite warnings. Such a situation has long-term consequences and can mean a setback of several years for the affected regions.

As soon as the misery starts, it is important to know that at least some time is needed – and not only about six months – to get the situation under control.

It is furthermore important to break the myths about famines and to understand that e.g. a better harvest does not necessarily mean less misery. Food scarcity is not the consequence of too little food in the world. The reasons are rather unproportional food dispersion and horrendous prices.

And then, we must not forget that for a healthy and balanced nutrition, various nutrients are needed, which are not always present.

Neither is hunger caused only by natural disasters or droughts. Also conflicts can result in famines, and since 1992 the occurrence of famines triggered by human actions has doubled.

The conflict at the Horn of Africa, for example, has been seething for two decades, and no end is in sight. Soon, almost 17,000 soldiers of the AMISOM (Africa Union Mission in Somalia) are to be stationed in Somalia in order to fight the Al-Shabaab together with Ethiopian and Kenyan troops.

However, what is most important, is to understand the fact that hunger can cause damage to an entire society over a period of years. Traumata, permanent health problems, and an overall development setback are only some examples that can be mentioned in this context.

When active help for the starving population is prohibited, who is then supposed to help the people? Photo: humedica/Katja Weber

Starving children cannot concentrate on education and develop only slowly. According to a study conducted in Guatemala, boys who received additional food during the first three years of their life, eventually earn an income almost twice as high as the income of the control group. (For further information see: Hoddinott J, Maluccio JA, Behrman JR, Flores R, Martorell R.: "Effect of a nutritional intervention during early childhood on economic productivity in Guatemalan adults." The Lancet. 2008. Feb. 2; 371 (9610): 411–6).

In two months, the wet season will set in once more at the Horn of Africa – weather it will rain or not – and accordingly, we will be able to draw further conclusions in summer. But an end to the dismal situation is not in sight, and the people in these countries will still depend on external help for a long time.

But maybe the world manages to overcome and downgrade not only the famine situation, but also the emergency situation. However, even in that case we would still have to deal with a food crisis (IPC phase 3), the extent of which would also be a cause for alarm and concern. Please continue to support our work by means of a targeted donation.

      humedica e.V.
      Donation reference „Famine relief Africa“
      Account 47 47
      Bank Code 734 500 00
      Sparkasse Kaufbeuren

Note: Raphael Marcus is a project worker for the relief measures at the Horn of Africa. He was born in Switzerland and he studied and worked with a relief organisation in Israel, before he started working for humedica in summer 2011.

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