The Duck of Minerva

Famine, Climate Change, and the Horn of Africa – part II

4 August 2011

Here is part II of my post on the famine in Somalia and East Africa. Since I blogged two days ago, FEWS NET has extended the geographic range at risk of famine (based on nutrition levels and rates of mortality) to more parts of Somalia including the agropastoral areas of Balcad and Cadale districts of Middle Shabelle, the Afgoye corridor IDP settlement, and the Mogadishu IDP community.


In my last post, I discussed what role if any climate change may be playing in the current crisis. I ultimately concluded that the science isn’t settled (for a similar view, see here). I don’t think we can rule out a climate signal but it’s probably premature to say that climate change is one of the drivers of the current drought. In this post, I want to address the causes of the current famine. I got a little bit carried away so I’m going to address what should be done in a third post.

I’m a little distressed when observers diminish the role played by physical exposure and suggest that politics is largely to blame for the famine. Here, Ed Carr in his blog post writes that:

This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does. But it is not the most important thing. However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward. Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world …
Is he right that the drought is not all that “anomalous”? Well, no actually.

Is this a bad drought?
When people say that this is the worst drought in 60 years, they are talking about rainfall totals and not the impact which has led to famine. What we’re seeing is the impact of two consecutive seasons of low rainfall with the complete failure of the short rains of October to December 2010 and subpar rainfall during the long rains from March to June 2011 (for more info, see this post from Columbia University).

The USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Network (FEWS NET) suggests that rainfall levels themselves are abnormally low for parts of Kenya and Ethiopia (there isn’t enough data for Somalia). Here is an excerpt from the FEWS NET report and I’ve clipped a graphic of rainfall:

This analysis indicates that rainfall was below‐average in all analysis areas (Figure 2) with 2010/11 being the driest or second driest year since 1950/51 in 11 of the 15 analyzed pastoral zones.
Relative Causal Weight 
So, contra Carr, this is a really bad drought, even for the region. I suppose my concern ultimately is about the relative causal weight of different factors in contributing to the disaster. Carr and others come down firmly on the side of politics being more important than physical exposure, but even though he acknowledges a role played by rainfall, it seems like it only plays a small part in his overall calculus of famine risk.

Carr blames politics and the persistent weakness of the Somali state and its long-running absence of a functioning government. I don’t disagree that this aspect is important. Carr and Owen Barder point out that while the drought extends to eastern Ethiopia and Kenya, the famine itself is largely a phenomenon in Somalia. Drawing on Amartya Sen’s logic that democracies do not produce famines, Barder argues:

As Amartya Sen explained in Poverty and Famines people go hungry when they cannot access food, because they are too poor or because markets and governments fail. Drought is neither necessary nor sufficient for famine.

Carr similarly writes that:

The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies. The HoA [Horn of Africa] situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).

Carr references the FEWS NET map of the famine (the graphic I embedded to kick off the last post) and asserts that: 

Famine stops at the Somali border. I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have. Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.

I don’t disagree about the importance of politics in making Somalia exceptionally vulnerable to extreme weather events. As USAID’s Rajiv Shah argued, al Shabab, the Islamist militia that controls chunks of Somalia, has made the situation worse by not allowing aid groups into the country:

It’s no coincidence that the areas the U.N. declared as meeting the definition of famine were precisely those parts of south and central Somalia that have been under al Shabab control and where humanitarian access has been limited by Shabab over the past several months to years.

News stories suggest that al Shabab has made it very difficult for aid groups to get in to the country over the past few years, with a number of aid workers having been killed. Somalia is simply a more dangerous and difficult place to get food aid into than other trouble spots with poor governance like Haiti. The New York Times has reported on the obstacles Shabab militants have imposed on those needing relief:

People from those areas who were interviewed in Mogadishu say Shabab fighters are blocking rivers to steal water from impoverished villagers and divert it to commercial farmers who pay them taxes. The Shabab are intercepting displaced people who are trying to reach Mogadishu and forcing them to stay in a Shabab-run camp about 25 miles outside the city.

So, I get that politics has played a major role in making Somalia especially vulnerable. Our own vulnerability mapping work for the DOD-funded Climate Change and African Political Stability project (CCAPS) suggests that southern Somalia was especially prone to having large numbers of people at risk of mass death from exposure to extreme weather events. Our model, unlike FEWS NET maps of emergent vulnerability, captures a snapshot of chronic vulnerability and is composed of four equally weighted baskets, one for physical exposure (25%), one for population density (25%), one for household and community resilience (25%), and one for governance and political violence (25%).



So, we reach a pretty similar conclusion to Carr about Somalia’s particular vulnerability, but we retain a significant role for physical exposure. What’s interesting about Somalia is that even if one underweights governance (see bottom right corner below), its history of physical exposure to climate-related hazards coupled with its population density and low household resilience make the country extremely vulnerable anyway.

What these maps also suggest is that Ethiopia remains pretty vulnerable, despite better governance than Somalia. And this is what we’re observing during the current crisis. Even if famine conditions are currently limited to Somalia, the situation in eastern Ethiopia is still classified as an “emergency,” meaning that households still face short-term instability coupled with “extreme food consumption gaps” or such “extreme loss of livelihood assets” that people are likely to face food consumption gaps.

This is such a bad drought that 4.6 million people Ethiopia are in need of assistance, nearly a million more than in Somalia. Though conditions for many of those 3.7 million in Somalia may be more dire,  conditions are quite bad in parts of Ethiopia. The government may be better positioned in terms of capability and intent to help those in need, but this is a really exceptional drought and should be treated as such. It isn’t clear that there is a “correct” weight that drought conditions play in the current crisis, and I surely don’t mean to absolve al Shabab or the Somali government of their responsibility. That said, I’m uncomfortable treating this mostly as a political problem, ultimately because even with better governance, this region is likely to face chronic water scarcity and resource constraints, particularly for pastoralists (even if the climate signal isn’t clear).

In my third post, I’m going to talk about what should be done.