Food Access Key as Horn of Africa Crisis Worsens, Say Agencies
The UN has officially declared a famine in parts of Somalia, as the food crisis in the Horn of Africa continues to worsen. Aid agencies are warning that allowing food to move freely in the region is key to preventing the humanitarian situation from deteriorating further.
Mark Bowden, the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, cautioned that inaction would mean that famine could spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks. The UN has called for emergency assistance to help those in need.
Meanwhile, the head of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) cautioned that countries need to keep international and cross-border trade open, as part of a package of short and long term measures.
"Do not introduce export bans within the region," warned the body's Director-General, Shenggen Fan. "While such bans may help secure the domestic food supply, they can also lead to starvation in neighbouring countries, which will exacerbate the crisis," he said in a statement.
Aid agencies are also arguing that governments and other groups must allow food to move freely within the region so that hungry people can gain access to it.
"There is food in the region, but it's not moving around" Ruth Kelly, Economic Policy Advisor at the aid agency Oxfam, told Bridges. "This is partly because of high transport costs and the sheer remoteness of the areas affected, but also because some local markets are not working."
Shortages abound in region; imports responding
The UN reported that malnutrition rates in the area are currently the highest in the world, with peaks of 50 per cent in certain areas of southern Somalia. In southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent, with deaths of children under five exceeding 6 per 10,000 per day in some areas.
The Food Security and Nutrition Analysis unit, based in Kenya, has said that only 15 to 20 percent of Somalia's domestic requirements are likely to be met by local cereal production this year. Normally, the figure would be closer to 40 percent, with regional cross border trade and sea commercial imports supplying the rest.
Commercial imports are already increasing in response to the deficit, the group said, with imports of cereals through Mogadishu port reaching levels that were over 80 percent higher than the previous year, and more than 100 percent higher than the 2008-10 average.
Keep food moving, experts say
Access to food, as well as its availability, varies considerably from one part of the region to another, food security experts explained. Conflict, as well as different climatic and agricultural conditions, are amongst the factors affecting whether hungry people can find food to eat.
Confusion over whether rebel groups are willing to allow aid agencies access to parts of Somalia under its control is also expected to hamper efforts to ensure emergency assistance reaches people in need.
"Some pockets [of the region] are productive," observed one expert. "If you can move food to where it's needed, you obviate a lot of the problems."
Market access hampered by infrastructure, other problems
Experts familiar with the region told Bridges that a lack of physical infrastructure is a serious barrier preventing food moving from moving from areas with food surpluses to those where there are food deficits. "You drive to the end of the road, then you get on a donkey, then walk for a day - and then you get to where people are producing food," said one source with knowledge of the area. High oil prices, along with trade barriers in some countries, also exacerbate the difficulties of moving food around in the region.
Improving infrastructure and access to inputs is critical to overcoming hunger in the long term, said officials at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Ensuring that traders can get access to food to sell, and that poor consumers are able to afford to buy it, is part of the solution.
"Markets are not working in the region", another source observed bluntly. "When something is twice the price of what it is down the road, you know something's wrong."
Climate change posing additional risks
Experts familiar with the region are warning that governments urgently need to ensure people who live in arid areas and are dependent on often erratic rains are able to adapt effectively to expected changes in the earth's climate.
At a global level, the frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and tropical storms is expected to increase as the levels of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere rise further in the years ahead. Average temperatures are also due to increase in many areas: farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture and traditional pastoralists are amongst those who are likely to be particularly badly affected.
"It's never going to be an area that's massively fertile," said one aid agency worker, speaking in general terms of the Horn of Africa. However, "with climate change, this is going to get worse and worse." Governments need to do more to make sure that people are able to cope effectively with future challenges, the source added - including by providing access to physical infrastructure such as reliable water sources, and access to properly functioning markets.
Regional integration, cash grants among options discussed
"We need a really practical response to these barriers to trade," Oxfam's Ruth Kelly stressed. "One option is cash grants to traders to boost supply and cash transfers to consumers to allow them to buy the food they need on local markets."
Many governments are currently exploring whether regional trade integration - customs or monetary unions - may represent a way to better link agricultural producers with markets. However, some analysts familiar with the region argued that these processes needed to occur in parallel with efforts to better integrate remote areas with countries and regions.
"We need to look first at how markets can be integrated within countries: what are the key constraints?" one expert argued.
ICTSD reporting; "Somali rebels deny lifting ban on foreign aid groups," THE GUARDIAN, 22 July 2011.