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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.

By Joy Portella / July 21, 2011



Seattle

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.

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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.

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