ANALYSIS: Drought in the Horn of Africa - does the world still care?

As many as 10 million people are being threatened by prolonged drought and food shortages in the Horn of Africa. But it is a slow-motion disaster and the world has not yet tuned in, Brian Stewart says.

A humanitarian disaster in slow motion threatens nearly 10 million people

So far there is only one piece of relative good news to cling to in the giant humanitarian crisis now threatening 10 million people in dust-blown, rain-starved East Africa.

It is that we are still dealing with a severe drought, not yet an actual famine, a difference that is absolutely crucial.

"I liken this to a slow-motion train wreck," Robert Fox, the head of Oxfam Canada told me this week. "We still have a very short time to get people off safely before the crash."

What will it take to address the humanitarian crisis in East Africa? Bettina Leuscher, from the UN's World Food Program, and Brian Stewart discuss the needs and the challenges on The National Thursday night. A video of this discussion will be posted on The National'website Friday.

What he means is that while the people affected are struggling with failed crops and lost cattle herds, the rest of the world by now should have received enough advance warning to provide large-scale relief.

Clean water and food is needed, bore holes have to be dug to find deeper wells and cattle saved where possible. But on top of that, central feeding centres with medical supplies need to be established — all on the double.  For we're very late.

The UN admits it is already "behind the curve" because the early warnings of environmental disaster in these stricken parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and just-independent South Sudan, were not heeded in time by governments — both local and those abroad — and many international relief agencies.

Late last year, the UN called for $500 million for Ethiopia and Kenya to address food security, but barely half that amount has come in.

Lost time like this can lead right to catastrophe. Only a few governments, such as the British, have responded rapidly. Many in the developed world are cutting foreign aid due to their own financial problems and many Westerners seem jaded after several years of continuing crises from Haiti to Pakistan to Japan.

No rains in sight

I never want to sound overly alarmist but we do need to worry here. This is the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years and you can sense legitimate alarm among relief officials.

Driven by drought, families wait to go to a refugee camp in the Ethiopian town of Dolo Ado, just north of the border with Somalia, July 9, 2011. (Reuters)

Also, keep in mind that weather experts are predicting no rains in that part of the world until October, and then probably only light ones at that. 

Already the landscape is streaked with long lines of dead cattle and their whitening bones. Across three nations, a pastoral population is losing its herds, its very life essence in many cases.

Farmers have had to consume seeds. Some food prices, such as for sorghum, a local staple, have soared 240 per cent. The main drought refugee camp in Kenya is exploding with close to 400,000 hungry people in a facility designed for 90,000.

More worrying is that if this drought, along with the exploding food prices, homelessness, disease and social chaos, trips over into famine you will see the death toll climb with astonishing rapidity.

It likely won't become another monster famine like the one in Ethiopia in 1984-85 that killed one million people, mainly women and children, before the TV cameras of a stunned world.

For I find it almost impossible to believe the rest of the world would let something like that happen again.

But that's hardly a reason to relax. The loss of life could still run into the tens of thousands and whole pastoral societies could crumble.

Stage four

The World Food Program has a five-point scale that runs from "general food secure" up to the ultimate horror (stage five), "catastrophic famine." East Africa is now at stage four. 

The Horn of Africa and the countries most affected by the current drought. ((CBC))

Famine, if declared, will mean up to one out of every three people will slip into acute malnutrition and the world will face an international crisis in an inhospitable dust bowl that will include the anarchy of Somalia as well as perhaps, by then, 12 million refugees.

A central point to remember is that we've not had a true regional famine in Africa in the 26 years since Ethiopia. Should this become one, it will be a huge defeat for our Western concept of concerned humanity.

What is so galling about this is the inattention. Time and again, experts have warned that changing weather patterns were causing increased survival difficulties in East Africa. Since 1984 extensive early warning systems have given us careful printouts on droughts and food shortages.

Droughts used to flatten the region about once a decade, but now they strike every two years or so.

This means that even the proudest pastoralists never get a chance to recover from their losses. Their cattle die or must be sold off; next to go are their tools, then seeds, until there's nothing left but despair and death.

Bring on the big battalions of aid

I get asked all the time what kind of aid efforts are best when it comes to huge emergencies like this.

And while I'm a strong believer that international aid has to be harnessed to long-term development and that governments in the region have to get serious about reforestation, new roads and crops and alternatives to cattle, bitter experience has taught me to stick with the "big battalions of aid" in dire emergencies.

In this, five of our more established Canadian agencies, which did pick up the early warnings months ago, have formed a humanitarian coalition to persuade the federal government and the Canadian public to help East Africa. 

These five are extraordinarily experienced in confronting every conceivable kind of humanitarian disaster: CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Quebec, Plan Canada and the venerable Save the Children, Canada.  They know the logistics, the diplomacy and the security realities of emergency help.

But my fear is that they face tremendous hardships, along with their international allies, in mobilizing support for East Africa because of the very slow-motion nature of what is going on here.

The life of pastoralists being destroyed by drought will not easily be portrayed on television. And we in the West have grown too used to responding only to the starkest images of suffering, like in Ethiopia in 1984.

But sometimes calamities don't advertise themselves in such dramatic form, and that is when we let our guard down and millions of innocent people are left defenceless and stripped of the most basic resources to survive, as they are now yet again in East Africa.

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