Internally displaced Somali women wait for food at a camp in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, on July 20, 2011. People in the rebel-controlled south and south-central parts of the country, whose livelihoods have been devastated by a combination of factors - from drought to conflict and global rises in commodity prices - have been left no choice but to walk for days to find food. Many of the thousands of families who managed to reach Mogadishu lost children along the way to starvation.  (Omar Faruk/Reuters)

CBC News

The current food crisis in the Horn of Africa is a humanitarian emergency, but it has a distinctly geopolitical dimension, say experts who follow the region.

Although the immediate problem facing the 11 million people aid agencies say need help is a shortage of food, the causes of the crisis take in a broader spectrum of problems affecting the region, including climate change, agricultural policy, military conflicts and the effects of global markets on local economies.

Much has been made of the fact that parts of the region have experienced the driest year in decades because of two poor rainy seasons, but droughts are not rare in this part of Africa; nor are food shortages.

The Horn (which includes Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda) is the poorest region on the continent, with more than 40 percent of its population of over 160 million living in areas prone to extreme food shortages.

And while the population of the region has doubled since the 1970s, food production has not kept up with that growth, says Abbas Gnamo, an Ethiopian-born academic who teaches African politics and conflict studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University and has worked as a consultant in the region.

Although the majority of the region's population depends on agriculture for their livelihood, farmers lack access to machinery and fertilizers, and agricultural productivity remains low.

This means that even in the years when farmers get enough rain, the amount of crops they produce is very small, and they don't have any food to put in reserve for the times when there is a drought or other unforeseen shock.

"One of the problems for the Horn of Africa is the food crisis is becoming more or less chronic," Gnamo said.

Dark side of food aid

In many cases, farmers have been disincentivized from growing food by cheaper imports and the dumping of surplus food aid onto local markets.

Such a situation arose in Ethiopia in 2005-06, for example, Gnamo said, when the government didn't have the capacity to store surplus aid once the relief operation was over and ended up selling the food on the local markets or giving it away.

"The peasants who invested and worked hard then had to sell [their food] at a lower price," Gnamo said.

"Then, they lost incentive, and then they reduced [production], because they felt if you cannot compete with imported food which is sold on market, then why [should] you produce more?"

In the current crisis, the drought and resulting failure of the harvest at the end of 2010 meant that pastoralists, the nomadic livestock farmers who number about 20 million in the Horn and account for as much as 70 per cent of the population in Somalia, began losing their livestock because they couldn't find water or pasture for them.

That meant they didn't have any animals to sell and hence no cash or assets with which to buy food at market.

"That happened first, and the farmers suffered next, because whatever crops they had left they were having to eat," said Austin Kennan, the Horn of Africa regional director for the Irish aid organization Concern, which has been working in the region for 25 years.

"Then, the rains did come...but were not sufficient, and we're thinking the harvest [this year] will be well under 40 per cent of what it should be.

'It has been a slow-onset crisis. It's not like Haiti or Pakistan.'— Austin Kennan, Concern aid organization

"It's this progressive loss of livestock, loss of crops, loss of food...people literally ended up with nothing, and then the deaths started.

"It has been a slow-onset crisis. It's not like Haiti or Pakistan with the earthquake and the flooding; it's not that sudden."

Major contributing factors to the current crisis have been the increases in the prices of fuel and food that have affected the whole region.

"Some areas of Somalia have seen price increases over the last year of 300 percent," said Kennan, who returned from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, late last week.

"The poorest people, they just can't afford that."

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