Stanford Progressive

Chronicle of 750,000 Deaths Foretold

By Shadi Bushra, published November, 2011

Many wonder why the famine in the Horn of Africa was not predicted by our billions of dollars of weather satellites and climate models. In short, famine is not a climatological phenomenon, but a socioeconomic one. The weather part – drought – was easily predicted. And given the fragile political and economic situation in the region, the famine could have been predicted, prepared for, and prevented.

Instead, the countries affected and the international community are playing a losing game of catch-up. Relief agencies state they need $2.4 billion, of which only $1.7 billion has ben raised. While certainly no pittance in the midst of a global recession, the shortcoming should be measured in human lives rather than dollars, with the UN warning that the death toll may top out at 750,000 dead.

Over 13 million people are in need of assistance in the Horn. At the moment, the death rate is 7.4 per 10,000 per day. Do the math: that’s 176 deaths every day. Death in the slowest, most painful fashion imagineable. But for children, the death rate is even greater, topping out at 15.3 per 10,000 per day.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this catastrophe. Al Shabab, which controls vast swaths of Somalia, refused to allow aid agencies to operate in their territory without a hefty tax. La Niña and the effects of climate change caused drier conditions this year. The political chaos in Kenya, the political repression in Ethiopia, and the lack of political space in Somalia all slowed government responses.

Some have noted that parts of Kenya had a bumper harvest this year. But skyrocketing global food prices (tripling the price of staples such as sorghum in Somalia or maize in Kenya) caused people to hoard what food was available, causing shortages even where rainfall was plentiful.

Yet this could have been prevented. Officials in the UN’s Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have been sending out famine warnings since last year. But governments often believe relief agencies are over-playing the risk of an emergency for their own reasons – until it happens. Oxfam accused European government’s of “willful neglect” in their response to the crisis.

The global humanitarian system is based on responding to, not preventing crises. It is as much a money argument as a moral one: The UN estimates that every $1 spent in prevention saves $7 in emergency spending. Until we invest in long-term solutions, we will find outselves paying for costlier fixes.


Photograph of malnourished child in Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) tent, credit: Cate Turton/UK Department for International Development

Maps of Horn of Africa Rainfall, courtesy of US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

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