East Africa food crisis – all you need to know

Richard Casson

Blog post by Richard Casson

Oxfam Great Britain, Digital Campaigner
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If you've visited Oxfam's website in the last few days, seen the news, or read the papers then you'll no doubt be aware of the humanitarian emergency that is unfolding in East Africa.

Oxfam and many other aid organisations have launched emergency appeals to respond to what's been described as ‘the most severe food security emergency in the world today.'

But how has this crisis come about, what are the causes, and how could it have been prevented? In this article we take a look at the situation in more depth. And we try to answer some of the above questions.

How the food crisis is spread through East Africa. Credit: FEWS NET

What's the situation?

The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing a severe drought, with 2011 the driest year on record since 1951. The effect of two successive poor rains, entrenched poverty and lack of investment in affected areas have led to acute food and water shortages across the region.

Displacement, due to the effects of drought and conflict, is increasing rapidly – according to the UN, more than 10,000 refugees a week are arriving in the Dadaab camp in north-eastern Kenya, pushing the camp to over four times its original capacity. In Ethiopia, 2,000 Somali refugees are arriving each day, taking the total number to more than 100,000.

Who's affected by the food crisis?

An estimated total of 12 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda (see the map from FEWS NET on the right for more).

What are the causes of the crisis?

Though drought has been a fact of life for many decades in the region, the climate is changing. As Halima Bare, a villager from Elado in north east Kenya, puts it: "When I was 18, 19, 20 there was plenty of milk, plenty of meat. Now things have changed. My children were used to milk and were brought up on that but with the changing environment we are changing the food we eat."

So why is it – in an area where people used to be better off – that there is now such widespread crisis? Extreme drought and changing rainfall patterns have compounded a combination of other factors including long term entrenched poverty, rising food prices and conflict. These issues, along with years of marginalisation and under-investment, have led to millions now facing catastrophe.

What else needs to be done?

Though emergency aid can help address people’s immediate needs in the short term, longer term measures to protect livelihoods and increase food production and availability in the region, must include better investment in small-scale food producers – addressing the issues that make communities vulnerable in the first place. Investment in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction will also be needed to help people cope with a changing climate and other shocks.

Governments – both rich donor countries and governments in the region – have an important role to play. Rich countries must scale-up their response, providing adequate emergency funds to plug the current $800 million gap (as of 20 July). And in East Africa, governments must cooperate to ensure food can rapidly reach those in need, temporarily removing import taxes and restrictions on food.

The UN and other humanitarian agencies must also step up registration efforts for people fleeing to refugee camps. As thousand of people flee in search of assistance, the Kenyan government must also follow through on the statement it made last week to open the Ifo II camp that lies close to the border with Somalia.

How is Oxfam responding?

Thanks to the generous support of people from across the world, Oxfam is already reaching families in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya with food, water and sanitation – the basics that people desperately need to stay alive.

Oxfam is also advocating for governments across the world to provide adequate help urgently. We’re also campaigning for longer-term policies to be put in place to increase the resilience of affected communities in the future so that future catastrophes are prevented.

How can you help?

Responding to this crisis and saving lives now is vital – and you help by donating to the nearest Oxfam to you.

But the crisis in East Africa is another example of a food system stretched to breaking point. Droughts in this region may be inevitable, but disasters are not. Governments and the international community must address the issues that make people vulnerable in the first place. The food crisis in East Africa, like in many other parts of the world, is the result of recurring long-term problems. The challenges facing the region will be exacerbated by climate change unless urgent action is taken to slash greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to see more investment in small-scale food producers, measures to help people cope with a changing climate, and greater support for sustainable livelihoods.

Help us create a movement for change – a movement to fix the broken food system – by joining GROW here.