A worn-out tank sits abandoned in Somalia, where the central government has lacked control over much of the country since 1991. Credit: iStockphoto.com/ranplett.
“In the Horn of Africa, droughts are natural but famines are man made,” says Emory anthropologist Peter Little, who studies the politics, economy and ecology of the region. “The famine in Somalia is an unfortunate intersection of failed rain, politics and conflict.”
Drought occurs every five or six years in the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, which has lacked the control of a central government over much of the country since a civil war in 1991, the effects of the current drought have been greatly compounded by fighting, Little says.
The U.N. has declared famine in two regions of south Somalia where the Islamist group Al-Shabaab has been fighting to maintain control. “A phenomenal number of people have been displaced,” Little says. “People have been forced out of farming and livestock areas and have clustered around towns where there is a little bit of security.”
Fighting disrupts markets and trading, and complicates delivery of food aid. In an attempt to escape the situation in recent months, more than 350,000 Somalis have poured into northeastern Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, which was designed to hold fewer than 100,000 people.
“Somalia is like a roller coaster, and right now it’s near the bottom of the hill,” Little says.
After years of being a failed state, things were beginning to look up for Somalia around 2003, when the World Bank put together an economic memorandum for the country. “People were actually becoming modestly optimistic about solutions,” Little says. “I was asked if I might be interested in joining a 2006 mission to Mogadishu, to look at long-term development, but things blew up again and it was cancelled.”
Since 2007, the situation has been steadily deteriorating, he says. “The food security situation has been awful for the past three years, particularly for the most vulnerable: Children, the elderly and women.”
Although the famine declaration in July brought Somalia back into the media spotlight, “the story has been bubbling for a long time,” Little says.
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