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Why is the Horn of Africa facing another food crisis?

We’ve been hearing about food crises in countries like Ethiopia since the 1980s – why is it still happening? That’s the perfect question to be asking right now, especially in light of the Australian Government releasing the details of its carbon tax over the weekend.

What does the carbon tax in Australia have to do with food shortages in Africa, you ask?

The key reason why countries in the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia – are experiencing more frequent and severe food shortages is climate change. If you look at it historically, the major rains in the Horn of Africa used to fail every decade, or so. But the climate is changing and those rains are failing more and more often now. What used to be a 10-year cycle of drought, more or less, is now every other year.

In the past, when the rains failed less frequently, natural resilience carried people through to the next harvest. The resilience was in terms of cattle – in good years people could fatten their cattle, in bad years they could eat the cattle. The land itself was resilient – it absorbed water over time, the aquifers (underground storehouses of water) had time to recharge. It’s funny to think of it this way, but the human body fat also provided protection – people themselves put on weight in those years and were able to get through leaner times.

Now that the rains are failing much more often, there’s simply not enough time to rebuild the cattle stocks, the aquifers, the quality of the land, even people’s body fat. This means that the old coping mechanisms are weaker, and there’s no longer the resilience to take people through to the next harvest because the harvests don’t come often enough. There are population pressures too, but I think what’s really at the root of this is climate change.

Food shortages in Ethiopia first came to our attention in the mid-1980s, thanks to the work of Bob Geldof and other celebrities who drew attention to the issue. Since then, there have been smart investments in food security – grain storage, irrigation, even roads. What you see when you travel in Ethiopia now is great roads. The good thing about those roads is you can move food around. We’ve learned that often food shortages do not affect a whole country, they can be localised. So one of the things helping us now is that food can be moved to where it’s needed, which helps the local economy as well as addressing the food shortage itself.

So that’s good news. We have learned how to manage the problem.

But nothing we do will solve the problem – long term, permanently – if our climate continues to change. Look at the Sahara – the population densities there are very, very low – for a good reason. It is so dry, it can’t sustain many human beings. The only way to avoid this happening to the Horn of Africa, and even beyond, with all the suffering and dislocations that will imply, is for you and I to reduce our carbon emissions. Quickly. Dramatically.

I remember vividly being in a town called Lalibela in northern Ethiopia, and seeing a woman walking by with all of her possessions on her back talking to another villager, tears rolling down her face. We asked if she was ok, what was going on? Through a translator she told us that the harvest had failed, there was nothing she could do, so she had to walk to another place to live. It was incredible – we were seeing a climate change refugee being forced to leave her home to find food.

I’m optimistic that we will manage this latest food crisis because I think we’ve learned some of the lessons of the past. But this will be addressing the symptoms rather than the biggest cause.

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