By Rebecca Barber
This time last year, the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) warned that the food security situation in the Horn of Africa was 'alarming', and that poor rains could lead to famine conditions in parts of Somalia.
As an international community, we failed to respond. Four months later the worst was realised and the UN declared a famine in six regions in Southern Somalia. By November, 750,000 people were at risk of starvation.
It's now acknowledged that last year's food crisis in the Horn of Africa took no-one by surprise, and that we had the information needed to take cost-effective, preventive action to save lives. An evaluation conducted late last year by the UK's Disasters Emergency Committee found that there was a 'failure of preventive action from late 2010', and a 'failure to respond with adequate relief from the time it was needed in early to mid-2011'.
We don't know exactly how many people died in the Horn of Africa, although one estimate suggests a figure of between 50,000 and 100,000. What we do know is that an earlier response which supported livelihoods, preserved household income and supported markets would have reduced rates of malnutrition, and that more substantial provision of food, nutrition, clean water and health services would have reduced the number of deaths. If an earlier response had saved even a small percentage of the lives lost, thousands of men, women and children would be alive today.
In the aftermath of the crisis, Australia has strengthened its commitment to tackling food insecurity in Africa, as well as its commitment to ensuring timely response to crises when they occur. At the conclusion of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth last year, the Australian government together with other Commonwealth member states recognised food insecurity as 'one of the most pressing and difficult global challenges of our time', and called for 'decisive and timely measures to prevent crises occurring' and to 'mitigate their impact when they do'.
This commitment is timely, because now another food crisis is unfolding in the Sahel – a belt of arid land that stretches from Senegal in the west through Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad to Sudan. This time, albeit far from the media spotlight, Australia together with the rest of the world has an opportunity to demonstrate lessons learned from the Horn.
More than 13 million people are at risk of hunger in the Sahel – a result of poor rains, a 25 per cent decline in food production across the region, a reduction in remittances from neighbouring countries, and skyrocketing food prices. Recent assessments by Save the Children show that in some parts of Niger, communities lack nearly two-thirds of the food and cash they need to survive the year.
In some parts of Mali, families are struggling to cope as the price of millet has risen by more than 80 per cent, while at the same time remittances have fallen by as much as 70 percent as workers return from Libya and Algeria.
One million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition – in plain language this means severely wasted. Malnutrition levels in some areas now exceed the emergency threshold of 15 per cent. Families have already begun to adopt 'harmful coping mechanisms' such as reducing the number of daily meals, selling livestock which is usually relied on for food and income, going into debt, and taking children out of school. In the long-term this reduces resilience and food security.
In a promising demonstration of lessons learned from the Horn, a number of donors have recognised the scale of the impending crisis and made early and generous commitments to the Sahel.
The US has pledged $75 million, Canada $41 million, France $22 million, and Germany $19 million. Australia has pledged $10 million – an amount that pales in comparison to the $128 million contributed to the Horn of Africa last year. It's not enough.
The UN estimates that it will need $725 million to tackle food security and nutrition in the Sahel, but so far just over half of this has been pledged – and even less actually committed. The lean season (the time between harvests when household food stocks dwindle) is approaching, and the next harvest is not until October.
The head of the Food and Agricultural Organisation warned last month that there were only two or three months to act to avoid a crisis on a scale similar to that seen in the Horn of Africa last year. That window of opportunity will soon close.
With the indicators of crisis becoming stronger, the Australian government has an opportunity now to take decisive action and demonstrate lessons learnt from the Horn of Africa. The consequences of failing to do so will be millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance, and thousands of lives lost.
- Rebecca Barber is Save the Children's humanitarian policy and advocacy advisor. This editorial originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.