Droughts are inevitable but famines avoidable

In March, UN humanitarian affairs chief Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council, “We stand at a critical point in history. … We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.” Four months later, the outlook is no less grim.

Some crises, like in South Sudan and Yemen, are almost entirely human-caused, the result of wars in which all sides destroy crops or steal livestock in punitive raids, forcibly confiscate food aid for soldiers’ use, and make it too dangerous for humanitarian workers to go to many areas.

But Ethiopia, Somalia, and Madagascar face a different problem: They are at the sharp end of climate change, which is disrupting rainfall and other weather patterns. It’s a succession of extreme weather events that would have been unthinkable just a generation ago.

In Madagascar, the droughts that used to come in cycles are now semipermanent. Desperate to buy food, locals first sold their goats. Then they sold their prized humpback cattle. Finally, they sold their kitchen pots. There was nothing to cook, anyway, besides leaves and bitter cactus fruit.

“Water is life, but what about food and something to cook it with?” asks Farah Robleh, whose veins stand out on his forehead above his gaunt, gray-stubbled cheeks. He once herded 200 goats and sheep and 20 camels in his Somalian village. He has just 20 goats left. “I don’t think anyone can live here anymore,” he sighs. “We have no options.”

Droughts are inevitable, and likely to strike more often and more harshly because of global warming. But famines are avoidable. It’s a question of doing the right thing. And, critically, of doing the right thing at the right time.

That’s why the UN and aid groups are increasingly unleashing a new weapon in their quest to prevent famine–warning the world early and often. And international agencies “were here, ready to go,” says Elke Wisch, UNICEF director in Madagascar, “and we switched gears into emergency mode in a timely fashion.”       read more

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