Despite the great strides, development programs have made in feeding hungry people in Africa, many of the continent’s regions have experienced famine. Famine can have disastrous humanitarian consequences; according to Mother Jones, the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa killed 29,000 Somali children in its first three months. Even food crises that are not officially famines can cause significant loss of life. Aid agencies must understand famine’s causes to address potential future famines in Africa.
The U.N. defines a food crisis as famine when 20 percent of households have food shortages, 30 percent of people have acute malnutrition, and more than two people per 10,000 die per day from food-related causes. Since 2000, the U.N. has declared famines in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia. The ongoing food crisis in South Sudan, which has already caused suffering, could soon become a famine.
Africa also has many instances of food insecurity, making its countries more susceptible to future famines. In 2013, the World Food Program found that the East African nations of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zambia had undernourishment rates of over 35 percent, the highest in the world.
What has made famines and other food crises in Africa so common? Droughts play a role because they reduce crop production and kill livestock all over affected regions. In 2011, the Horn of Africa experienced abnormally low rainfall, leading to food shortages and an eventual famine. This year, Kenya’s Capital News Network reports similarly bad weather patterns across East Africa.
Droughts are not the only contributing factors to famine in Africa, however. Violence and political instability made it difficult for NGOs and aid agencies to distribute food in affected areas. Mother Jones reports that clashes between the Somali transitional government and the extremist al-Shabab militia prevented many groups from reaching people in the 2011 famine. Al-Shabab itself expelled aid agencies from Somalia, worsening the crisis. Capital News estimates that the famine killed 250,000.
Today, South Sudan shows similar signs of potential famine. Low rainfall combined with an ongoing civil conflict means that people, especially refugees, will have reduced access to food. Already, 3.5 million South Sudanese citizens struggle with dying crops and livestock, malnutrition and food shortages.
The food crisis in South Sudan is not yet a famine, but the lack of an official label may worsen existing conditions. According to The Guardian, studies on the Horn of Africa famine found that more people died from undernourishment before the crisis was declared a famine. Without the official famine designation, the media did not cover the crisis as much, there was less public outcry for support, and governments did not appropriately scale up funding.
Only when the Horn of Africa crisis became a famine did aid providers start to become more effective. To properly distribute food aid and prevent future deaths from the recent South Sudan shortage, the international community will need to act quickly and urgently. The threat of famine in Africa will continue, but with a strong early-reaction network the world can help prevent it. If the world can come together and get support for aid before crises become famines, millions could be saved.