Agencies warn of east Africa famine

Food price rises are combining with severe drought and conflict to create the gravest threat of famine in years across large parts of east Africa and the Horn, according to aid agencies desperately short of funds.

The agencies of the Disasters Emergency Committee, the UK-based umbrella organisation which launches and coordinates responses to major disasters overseas, said on Tuesday that they face a funding shortfall of more than £85m (€94m) for their emergency response in the region.

As many as 12m people are affected, with about 1,000 Somalis fleeing drought and conflict into Kenya every day compared to a normal flow of several hundred a month.

Oxfam has launched what it is calling its largest-ever appeal in Africa in response to the crisis.

The agency needs £50m to reach 3m people in dire need of clean water, food and basic sanitation.

Droughts used to occur in the region typically every 10-15 years but have become more regular, affecting the coping mechanisms of communities hardened to life in a fragile, semi-desert environment.

Experts in nomadic life in the region say that sustained shortfalls in rains have begun to erode the traditions of nomadic pastoralists who inhabit the most affected swath of the Horn of Africa and who have become increasingly dependent on food aid to survive.

As many as 3.2m Ethiopians depend on food aid typically each year despite substantial increases in agricultural output in more fertile parts of the country over the past decade. In northern Kenya the figure will be similar this year according to UN agencies, with 2.4m perennially dependent on food aid.

“We have had three severe droughts in the last decade in Kenya, southern Somalia and Ethiopia.

“It used to be one every 10 to 12 years. The cycle has got shorter,” said Gareth Owen, emergencies director of Save the Children, who added that the region was becoming a bellwether for climate change, much as Bangladesh is for rising sea levels.

The famine early warning system set up by aid agencies to avert disasters such as those that occurred in Ethiopia in the 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s, warned a month ago that late rains this year, following their complete failure between October and December 2010, was creating emergency conditions across much of the region.

Livestock mortality has risen dramatically at a time when staple cereal prices have also increased sharply.

The price of maize on the wholesale market in Kenya has risen 160 per cent since July last year and the retail price of red sorghum has jumped 169 per cent, exceeding the peaks of the 2007-08 food crisis.

In southern Somalia, sorghum prices have risen by 240 per cent over last year’s prices.

The UK this week promised £38m to the World Food Programme of the UN, which will provide the food aid that many of the DEC’s members will be distributing. The UN’s own appeal is only 40 per cent funded.

The high price of grains on global futures markets – despite sharp drops in recent weeks – could reduce the ability of western organisations to provide food aid.

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