East Africa: The preventable crisis

Rosebell Kagumire is a Ugandan journalist working on peace and conflict issues in East Africa. In this guest blog, Rosebell explains how African governments must play a vital role in preventing future famines. NOTE: The opinions reflected here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect Oxfam policy.

On Tuesday this week, the Daily Monitor newspaper in Uganda reported the death of two people in the eastern district of Bulambuli. Local authorities there said the two had died due to hunger. They also warned that that there could be more deaths.

In desperation the local area leader pleaded, "hunger is killing us, please we are asking government to come to our rescue, our children have abandoned school and can't go back because there is no food."

The district, like many others, has experienced drought since April. And though Eastern Uganda is not on any of the drought-affected maps that I have seen aid agencies using for purposes of responding to the current food crisis, the problem of food insecurity and failure of Eastern African governments to put in place measures to prevent death and devastation is out there.

Oxfam has called the food crisis facing East Africa the worst of the 21st Century. Across Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, 12 million people are in dire need of food, clean water, and basic sanitation. The UN has declared famine in Southern Somalia. Nearly half of the Somali population is now in crisis, with an estimated 2.8 million people affected. The main focus has been on the humanitarian needs for the worst affected. The UN estimates that $1billion extra is required to meet immediate needs, and of this so far less than $200 million has been provided.

Yet the discussion cannot just be about meeting the needs of today. This crisis was predicted, governments and the international community had enough time to respond and then we would not be seeing images of children with bare ribs arriving in Dadaab refugee camp.

I have seen statements slamming the international community for its slow response to the crisis but I have not seen many questions put to African governments expect for Kenya over opening a new camp for Somali refugees.

The African Union made a statement to its Committee on the Special Emergency Assistance Fund for Drought and Famine in Africa (SEAF) and gave a grant in the sum of US$300,000 to UNHCR to support Somalis affected by the drought. The statement also indicated that Fund was actually dealing with dwindling resources because governments have not put in money.

In a statement, Oxfam explained the drought problem that eastern Africa is facing.

"While severe drought has undoubtedly led to the huge scale of the disaster, this crisis has been caused by people and policies, as much as by weather patterns" the statement read. "If more action had been taken earlier it could have helped mitigate the severity of the current crisis. It is no coincidence that the worst affected areas are those suffering from entrenched poverty due to marginalization and lack of investment."

Most of these areas in East Africa under crisis are marginalized areas that are only responded to when the situation is already dire. These areas are not a priority for our governments of the day.

I spoke to Kenyan journalist Kassim Mohamed who just returned from Dadaab. He said the plight of Somali refugees was still not being given urgency because of politics.

"I was in Dadaab, I met a women who waited in security lines on the border for hours. She had two children, one 3 year old a younger by hand another strapped to her back," Mohammed said. "The three year old was too malnourished, she had to choose which child to leave behind to die and she left her 3 year old, took a shortcut route into Kenya to save the younger one." "Why would Kenya, the largest economy in East Africa fail to feed its people?" Kassim asked. "Truth is that the politics of the day have taken its toll. Those who are not represented well will ultimately be the one whose survival is not thought about until they are dying."

There has been limited support for farmers and instead the country has been concentrating on the debate to bring in cheap GMO foods.

In Somalia, in the first three months of 2011, more people had been displaced due to drought than armed conflict. Aid agencies had predicted this would be what we are seeing. In early June, I met Ms. Kelly David, the head of UN OCHA for East and Southern Africa when she gave a talk on migration and displacement in the region at the Nansen Conference on climate change and displacement in Olso.

She said, "Linkages between relief assistance, disaster risk reduction, rehabilitation and development are too weak and poorly funded." She pointed at how the Mozambican government in 2006 had appealed for a $3.4 million to prepare for floods but nothing much was given but the international community spent $98 million in response once the floods wrecked havoc.

Governments in eastern Africa must act differently on their policies that can change how agriculture is done to ensure food security. The international community must support initiatives to reduce the risk of disasters and not wait for a life or death situation. In face of these droughts, farmers in Eastern Africa cannot only look to their government given the global effects of climate change and donor countries who are the main greenhouse gas producers must also pay.

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