Africa teeters on the brink of famine

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A severe drought in the Horn of Africa is exacerbating an ongoing food crisis, one that affects close to 10 million people in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Some aid groups are calling the situation a "pre-famine" — and the situation threatens to get much worse.

What would normally have been the rainy season there — which for the second year in a row brought the lowest rainfall totals in a 60 year period — has ended, and rain is highly unlikely to fall again before September. Although previous droughts have lasted longer, the current drought is particularly severe, and its impacts have been exacerbated by skyrocketing food prices, reduced coping capacity and a limited humanitarian response.

Refugees from Somalia are streaming across the border into Kenya, and more than 20,000 arrived in two weeks in June. Some 30,000 new arrivals have settled just outside the three already over-crowded camps at Dadaab in northeastern Kenya, and thousands more are continuing to arrive every day.

Although the World Food Program is providing food for 446,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, in camps in northwestern and northeastern Kenya, the organization has a shortfall of $43 million for its drought operations in Kenya over the next six months.

Climatic models differ on how climate change will play out in the Horn of Africa, however two powerful pieces of evidence suggest that this catastrophe-in-the-making may be human-caused:

• Recent research [PDF] suggests that rainfall has declined over the last 60 years in parts of the Horn of Africa, and that this trend is likely to continue under climate change.

• Second, the current drought is linked to La Niña patterns. A historical record of Niño/Niña patterns shows that both are more powerful when temperatures are higher.

Widespread hunger calls for immediate action, as UN Humanitarian Affairs and World Food Program officials have emphasized. But as industrial countries spend on this urgent humanitarian disaster, they ought also to invest in the climate adaptation funds to which they agreed at the Cancun climate talks but have yet to deliver.

The Center for Public Health & Climate Change at PHI, in collaboration with organizations such as Action Against Hunger, the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition and several UN agencies, is developing a capacity building initiative on women’s leadership to address climate change impacts on health and nutrition. The initiative will be launched at the event, "Women’s Leadership to Create a Climate for Health and Nutrition," at the COP17 climate talks in Durban, South Africa in December, 2011.