Horn of Africa: what is famine and what causes it?

by ShelterBox | @ShelterBox | ShelterBox
Tuesday, 6 August 2013 12:59 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Horn of Africa crisis in 2011 was labelled as the worst in 60 years, caused by a combination of sustained drought, swiftly increasing food prices and escalating conflict in Somalia. By September 2011, over 13 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.

ShelterBox delivered 7,000 disaster relief tents to displaced families in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, bringing them shelter and a place of privacy at a time of desperate need. However over the past two years, many people have been struggling against famine and continue to do so today. So, what is famine and what causes it?

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) is a five-step scale that classifies the severity and magnitude of food insecurity, used by the United Nations (UN) and other humanitarian organisations.

‘Famine/humanitarian catastrophe’ is stage 5 of the IPC Acute Food Insecurity Reference Table for Household Groups and is famine at its extremity. It requires that acute malnutrition rates are above 30 percent, there is less than 2,100 kilocalories of food and four litres of water available per person per day, more than two people per 10,000 die each day, and all livestock is dead. Therefore by the time the UN called the Horn of Africa crisis a famine on July 20 2011 it was already a signal of large-scale loss of life.

The causes of famine

The Horn of Africa’s famine is not just down to the weather. The three dominant causes are drought, high food costs, poverty and violent political instability, recognisable factors in almost any famine but more extreme here due to their severity.

The ongoing drought in the region has caused crop failure, which has led to record food inflation. This combined with poverty leaves people vulnerable to starvation. However underlying it all has been the violent internal conflict over the years, particularly in Somalia, which has led to famine.

Conflict disrupts people’s traditional ways of dealing with food scarcity, like gathering wild foods; it stops people cultivating their land; it destroys market centres and transport links; it brings about long-term economic decline as the infrastructure is destroyed and foreign investment collapses; and it turns ordinary people into refugees, as seen in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp where over a million people now reside in the middle of the desert.

As ShelterBox specialises in emergency shelter and non-food items, the disaster relief charity no longer is working in the region. But the UN and other aid agencies continue to monitor and raise vital funds and awareness to help the most desperate people affected by famine.

Thank you

ShelterBox would like to thank its donors and supporters worldwide for their generous gifts that have helped thousands of families displaced by the Horn of Africa crisis.