Opinion

Famine in Horn of Africa is as deserving of American help as a tsunami or earthquake

American generosity is too often triggered by a sudden event like an earthquake or tsunami. The drought and hunger now ravaging the Horn of Africa are no less severe. Millions face starvation, and the UN has just declared a state of famine in southern Somalia.

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I’ve witnessed many different kinds of disaster zones during my years working with the aid agency Mercy Corps – earthquakes, floods, tsunamis – but I’ve never seen anything as devastating as people caught in the slow, vice-like grip of a severe drought – and the hunger that follows.

Yesterday, for the first time in decades, the United Nations declared a state of famine in parts of southern Somalia, warning that millions of people in the region face starvation. The people of the Horn of Africa are suffering in numbers bigger than those that inspired the Live Aid anti-famine movement of the 1980s. Things won’t get better in the coming months leading up to the hoped-for fall rains. If we – American donors, the US government, and other donor countries, together with the governments of the affected region – don’t act now, the vice will keep tightening, and families will get squeezed dry.

I spent last week in northeast Kenya assessing the impact of the terrible drought in this area, as well as large swathes of Ethiopia and Somalia. In case you don’t know the basic narrative of drought and starvation in the Horn of Africa, here it is: Let’s say you’re a herder of a hundred goats and cattle; those animals are all you own. After months of drought, your animals are hungry and thirsty, so you start moving to look for food and water. Today you walk five miles more than yesterday, and tomorrow five miles more than today.

With all the travel, your animals become exhausted and begin dying. You sell some of them because you need the money, but everyone else has the same idea, so the market is glutted and your sales don’t fetch much of a price. After a few more months, you’re desperate. Finally you take off for southern Somalia, where you hear there might be water, or you drop out of pastoral life and head to the nearest town, where you beg for work. You leave your wife and kids behind, and they either become paupers in a village or move to an overburdened camp where at least they can get food and water – maybe.

It’s like the developing world version of the US mortgage foreclosure crisis but much more severe, and at the end you don’t lose your house – your kids die of starvation.

The central element of this story is water; everyone is obsessed with finding it. I saw this in the eyes of the herder who’d been walking with his family – including his 10-year-old daughter – for 17 days to find water. I met a young woman with a baby who’d trudged eight hours to collect dirty water at a borehole, and was steeling herself for the grueling return trip. I witnessed a man climb a tree and ever so gently hold down a lone green branch so that his parched, starving camel could gain some strength.

In some ways, the narrative of the Horn of Africa is set. Every year, this region gets drier. Some areas of northeast Kenya haven’t seen significant rainfall in three years, rivers are dry, and water holes need to be dug ever deeper. It is obvious that climate change – exacerbated by deforestation – has had a huge negative impact on people in this region. But it’s unknown how much worse it will get, and if and when people will have to give up their traditional way of life.

But in other important ways, this story is not written in stone. Short-term interventions such as food distributions, vouchers for food and water, and fuel to keep water pumps running can help keep people alive. Additional work, like creating jobs in the region’s urban centers and helping pastoralists convert to farming – which makes more productive use of scarce water resources than raising animals – can help drought-starved families have better long-term prospects.

Americans can be very generous in our response to people in need, but too often that great generosity is triggered by a sudden event that garners significant news coverage: the Haiti earthquake or Japan tsunami. When disasters happen slowly – like a drought and famine – they’re less visible and get less of a response, but that doesn’t make them any less severe.

As an outsider in the region, I have seen the progression of events with a looming, doomsday ending ever present in the background. But the people who are living the drought are simply busy struggling to survive. In the Horn of Africa, that struggle has become increasingly severe. The call for aid has rarely been as urgent. Americans must listen.

Joy Portella is the communications director for the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps.

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