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 more than 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 per cent of its population  of over 160 million living in areas prone to extreme food shortages.

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The Horn of Africa region, highlighted above, is the poorest part of the African continent. It includes the countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda. ((CBC))

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?"

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A Somali herdsman leads goats toward the water point at Afgoye livestock market, west of Mogadishu on March 15, 2010. (Omar Faruk/Reuters)

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 per cent," said Kennan, who returned from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, late last week. "The poorest people, they just can't afford that."

'Out of options'

It's that combination of climatic factors, price increases, vulnerabilities of the region's agricultural infrastructure and, in the case of Somalia, conflict, that has left people with little more than the clothes on their back, said Kennan.

"People are extremely resilient, but they've literally run out of options," he said.

It's why many pick up and head for any nearby urban area where they think they might be able to find food or assistance. Kennan said that his organization's field workers are finding some villages in rural parts of south and south-central Somalia, the region hardest hit by food shortages, are emptied of half or more of their residents.

Many of the people who leave end up in Mogadishu when they can't find aid closer to home, Kennan said. He described seeing groups of exhausted families in the capital who had travelled for days or even weeks, collapsed at the side of the road or on a patch of ground in the shade of the capital's ruined buildings, damaged by years of civil war.

"At that stage, they're literally at the end of their tether," Kennan said. "The stories are actually what made it so horrendous, because every single family had lost two or more children.

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An internally displaced woman holds her malnourished son at the Banadir hospital in Mogadishu on July 22. UNICEF estimates the number of acutely malnourished children in Somalia has risen from 476,000 in January to 780,000 at the end of July. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

"Often, it's women [walking] alone with children, so they're not even able to bury them properly. They just have to leave them and walk on, hoping that somebody else will bury them for them, which is absolutely traumatic."

Markets in Mogadishu are functioning and have enough imported food to provide the essentials so Kennan's organization has focused on distributing food vouchers that enable displaced people to purchase food from local merchants.

"We find it's the quickest way of getting food in because to bring in lots of food takes time," he said.

Kennan estimates Concern is reaching about 100,000 people in Somalia and aims to scale that up to 300,000. Even that is a small fraction of the 3.7 million people in Somalia alone who the UN says need food, 2.8 million of whom are in the far less accessible, rebel-occupied south part of the country.

Getting food to those areas is more complicated and involves buying food in the capital and contracting someone to transport it south.

"In the rural areas, the markets have been severely damaged," Kennan said. "People don't have money, and they've lost their livestock, they've lost their crops, which is what's led to this disaster."

Desertification, lack of irrigation leaves region vulnerable

Gnamo points out that one reason climatic effects like a drought have such a devastating impact in southern Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa is that people in the region largely depend on rain.

"That means there is no irrigation, so when rain delays or simply comes too late or leaves too early, then they are, obviously, exposed to food shortage," he said.

The lack of rain is a major problem for a region that has experienced massive desertification and deforestation in recent years. Ethiopia, for example, has lost almost 19 per cent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, according to the Food and Agricultre Organization.

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People roll and drag water containers in Wajir, Kenya, in a Red Cross handout photo released on July 21, 2011. Desertification is an increasing problem for the whole of the Horn of Africa and threatens grazing land and water supplies. ((Reuters) )

"Deforestation means that many countries in the region are now becoming more or less arid," says Gnamo. "That means they don't receive rain, you don't have trees, you don't have grazing land, you don't have water. … The Horn is now more or less dry."

According to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional body for developing intergovernmental strategies on food, environmental, economic and security issues, 60 per cent of the Horn is classified as arid and almost 17 per cent as semi-arid.

'You have ... many conflicts between nomads who are fighting for grazing land and water.'— Abbas Gnamo, academic

That has made life difficult for the nomad pastoralists who need to feed their livestock and move freely through the region without regard for political borders.

"You have, unfortunately, many conflicts between nomads who are fighting for grazing land and water," Gnamo said. "This is really one of the most important security issues in the border [areas]."

Another problem complicating life for farmers in the region is the selling off of farmland to foreign interests that use it to grow food for their own countries. Both Ethiopia and Kenya have sold or leased agricultural land to agri-businesses from China, Saudi Arabia, India and other countries with cash reserves.

"One of the unfortunate sides of this is they are likely to produce not for the local market but [for] foreign markets. That is the trend," Gnamo said.

In most cases, the local peasants are evicted from the land and although some are compensated, most have little choice but to become day labourers on the land they once farmed for themselves. In countries such as Ethiopia matters are complicated by the fact that all land is government owned and peasants only lease it from the state.

"Some people would like to see the denationalization of the land where peasants have the means and the ways of developing their own land," said Gnamo.

Food self-sufficiency must be goal

Taken together, all of these factors point to a wider problem that affects the continent as a whole, says Gnamo.

"Africa is the only continent that never succeeded, since the end of colonialism, to be self-sufficient in terms of food production," he said. "Although some countries are faring well because they have more exports … I don't know if there is any country that doesn't import food."

Still, Gnamo says he believes the Horn of Africa has the potential to one day be self-sufficient when it comes to food.

"Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda — they still have fertile lands. With the right policy and the right strategy, they will be able to overcome this problem," Gnamo said.

In the meantime, it is the countries that have been able to implement safety nets and early warning systems that have managed to avoid the kind of catastrophic full-scale famine that has occurred in southern Somalia.

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Ethiopian farmers Mandefro Tesfaye, left, and Maru Sisay walk in their wheat field in Abay, north of Addis Ababa, Oct. 21, 2009. With the right agricultural policies, countries like Ethiopia could become self-sufficient when it comes to food, says Ethiopian-born academic Abbas Gnamo. (Barry Malone/Reuters)

The aim of IGAD when it was created in 1986, under a different name and in the wake of the deadly 1984 famine, was to help Horn of Africa nations anticipate and plan for the recurrent droughts that affect the region. Not all countries, however, have been able to implement its strategies effectively, and as in the case of the current crisis, which many in the region were warning about for months, the international community doesn't always heed its warnings.

Kenya and Ethiopia both have fairly sophisticated systems in place for monitoring rainfall, food prices, food reserves and other factors and recognizing when intervention is needed, said Sally Healy, an associate fellow of the Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

So, although they are still dependent on food aid, when droughts like the one that happened last year occur, they are able to request aid in time to avert a crisis and manage food shortages.

That means that although there are still 2.4 million people in Kenya and 4.6 million in Ethiopia in need of food aid, unlike in Somalia, they are, for the most part, not having to make the kind of long, treacherous treks to distant relief camps to get it.

"People there are getting assistance, and they've got coping mechanisms," Healy said. "They can move around to places where it's easier to get assistance, and there are governments that can assist them and donors who are willing to help."

Southern Somalis cut off from aid for too long

That is not the case in southern Somalia, says Healy, where the UN has declared a full-blown famine in two regions — Bakool and Lower Shabelle. The food crisis has driven more than 166,000 Somalis from south and south-central parts of the country to neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia since the beginning of the year. Another 1.4 million have been displaced internally.

A dysfunctional and fractured political landscape and a major reduction in recent years in the amount of humanitarian assistance reaching the regions of Somalia controlled by the Islamist rebel group al-Shabaab  has left people there with no choice but to leave their homes and seek aid elsewhere, said Healy.

"This catastrophic situation has arisen because of the people being kind of locked down in south-central Somalia by this combination of factors, which has left a very vulnerable group with nothing for a long time," she said.

'If a very, very vulnerable area is denied assistance for a long time, then they get tipped over the edge by a shock.'— Sally Healy, Chatham House

"These are the kind of humanitarian emergencies that we don't see so much of now, because the world's got much better at anticipating and helping build resilience and giving assistance in vulnerable areas, but if a very, very vulnerable area is denied assistance for a long time, then they get tipped over the edge by a shock.

"Another bad year has just created a catastrophe for people, because they wouldn't be fleeing their homes in these numbers if it wasn't an absolute disaster."

Al-Shabaab, which has aligned itself with al-Qaeda although just how closely is unclear, has denied access to the areas under its control to large UN humanitarian organizations like UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) since 2010. The WFP, and other agencies, pulled out of the region on its own in early 2010 after several of its workers were killed and after al-Shabaab began imposing strict conditions on some aid workers, charging them dubious "security fees" and "taxes," looting aid supplies and threatening relief workers it suspected of collaborating with Somalia's Western-backed transitional government in Mogadishu.

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An al-Shabaab soldier stands next to women at a displaced persons camp in Shebelle, about 50 km south of Mogadishu, on July 6, 2011. The Islamist rebel group has clashed with UN aid organizations over how to provide aid to the people living in the parts of Somalia it controls. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

"The Shabaab were basically very suspicious of the big agencies, the big UN operations, and associated them with the political agenda that the UN obviously has, which is clearly not to let Shabaab be in charge," Healy said. "So, in that way, they saw them as their enemy, but they couldn't, or weren't able to, take the view — nor have major donors, as well — that humanitarian aid doesn't have a political stripe on it."

Earlier this month, as the humanitarian disaster in southern Somalia escalated, it was reported that al-Shabaab had reversed its position and would allow UN agencies back into the region. The group later backtracked and said only aid agencies already operating in the region could provide assistance.

At the same time as UN relief workers retreated from southern Somalia in recent years, the U.S. also cut back its aid to the region and withdrew its funding for WFP operations there. The U.S. had placed al-Shabaab on its list of terrorist organizations in 2008, and in the past year or two, as al-Shabaab began imposing levies on aid or diverting the aid itself, U.S. groups scaled back their relief operations or pulled out altogether for fear of running afoul of the law barring U.S. organizations from providing material support to terrorist groups.

Somali famine by the numbers

Click here to see a visual representation of the scale of the famine in Somalia.

In the face of the current crisis, the U.S. pledged $28 million US for UN relief operations targetting Somalis but said it would still not authorize aid to regions under al-Shabaab control unless aid agencies could guarantee it would not be diverted or taxed by the rebel group.

There have been some relief organizations that have continued to operate in al-Shabaab-controlled territories, including the Red Cross and various smaller aid groups. Kennan said Concern's field staff, who are all Somali, have not experienced the kind of difficulties UN organizations have encountered and have been able to continue working in southern Somalia by remaining neutral and "engaging very openly and transparently with whatever authorities are on the ground … in order to get access to those who need it."

But Healy fears smaller organizations are not equipped to tackle the crisis on their own.

"When things get to this stage, where one-third of the children are extremely malnourished, you have to have a really big industrial-scale operation, and it's very hard for small NGOs to do that sort of thing on the scale that's needed," she said.

It's also not enough to limit aid operations to Mogadishu and the refugee camps along Somalia's border with Kenya and Ethiopia, Healy said.

"I think the worst of this situation really is that it's probably, in fact, the better-off people who are arriving [in the relief camps]. If you've really got to walk for seven or eight days you've got to have a modicum of strength to be able to do that," she said.

"It's going to be the really poor and the most vulnerable who are going to be left behind, and helping people on the edges of a disaster like this isn't enough; you actually have to find a way to help them inside as well."

Somalia: a country without a state

It's no accident that Somalia has suffered the brunt of the current food crisis in the Horn of Africa. The country of 9.3 million has been without a functioning government and riven by conflict since the overthrow of military dictator Siad Barre in 1991.

There have been dozens of failed peace treaties signed among rival warlords and repeated attempts to establish a central unity government since 2000.

The framework of the current Transitional Federal Government, composed of unelected clan representatives and backed by Western powers, was first set up in 2004 through a peace process negotiated in Kenya.

The government was based in the southern city of Baidoa, and its hold on power was tenuous from the start. In 2006, it clashed with a group of Islamists known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) who managed to wrest control of the capital, Mogadishu, and other parts of southern Somali from feuding warlords. The ICU's reign was short-lived, however, and it was overthrown in a U.S.-backed invasion by Ethiopian armed forces who intervened to prop up the transitional government.

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Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed at a summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 4, 2011. Ahmed was a leader in the moderate wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which briefly controlled parts of Somalia in 2006 before it was ousted by Ethiopian armed forces. (Stringer/Reuters)

When Ethiopian troops withdrew in 2009, the mandate of the transitional government was extended for two years, but it has never managed to control more than a few blocks of Mogadishu — and that only thanks to the protection of several thousand African Union peacekeeping forces from Uganda and Burundi.

Elections were to be held this September but have been postponed for another year.

The country remains fractured along clan and religious lines, with some parts, such as Somaliland, run by autonomous local administrations that oversee functioning economies and even elections, and others caught up in battles between warring clans and militia groups such as al-Shabaab.

Al-Shabaab evolved out of a faction  of the ICU that was radicalized by the Ethiopian invasion and managed to gain control of much of south and south-central Somalia in 2008-09, including Baidoa and a large part of Mogadishu.

Although not entirely a homogenous group, al-Shabaab's broad aim, says Sally Healy of the British think tank Chatham House, is to eradicate clan divisions and the nation state and reconstitute Somalia as an Islamist state under Sharia law — something that worries Somalia's neighbours Ethiopia and Kenya, which both have large Somali populations.

Within Somalia, al-Shabaab does not have widespread popular support, says Healy, and is opposed by moderate Islamist groups like Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a.

"There are probably Islamist people who think there should be an Islamist government in Somalia, but they wouldn't support Shabaab necessarily, so it's very fragmented," Healy said.

The weak transitional government is equally unpopular, however, and there are many who feared the rise of the ICU five years ago who now regret so swiftly rejecting the group, says Abbas Gnamo, an expert on the Horn of Africa region.

"It was perhaps [made up of] conservative Muslims, but they were not radicals," he said.

In fact, in a conciliatory move to Islamist moderates, the newly constituted parliament in 2009 elected a former ICU chairman, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, to head the transitional government.

Gnamo, Healy and other experts see reconciliation on the local level as the only way out of the protracted conflict between disparate groups in Somalia.

"The only thing that's going to stabilize Somalia is when the people in the south come to doing what the people in the north have already done," says Healy, "which is to reconcile amongst themselves and agree … starting from a community base of pacts between each other, that they're going to stop the conflict and start to create administrations. It has worked in the north, and it's spreading in the north."