Severe Crisis Grips East Africa

The following op-ed appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of the Toronto Star

July 13, 2011

East Africa is facing the worst food crisis of the last 60 years. Across Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, more than 10 million people are in dire need of food, clean water and basic sanitation. Loss of life on a massive scale is a very real risk, and the crisis is set to worsen over the coming weeks. Livestock are dying, markets are empty, food prices are rising dramatically and people are starving.

This emergency did not happen overnight; it happened slowly, over time, and has gone on relatively unnoticed by the general public. People in Canada may be unaware of the enormity of the crisis, they may have misperceptions about its cause, or they may not fully understand what needs to be done to help. As the situation worsens, it is important that Canadians know what is happening, why it’s happening and, most importantly, what we must do to make a sustainable difference.

The combination of severe drought and a conflict in Somalia is driving people across its borders as they seek food, water and safety. Almost half the children arriving in refugee camps in Ethiopia from southern Somalia are malnourished. This is a very visible tragedy of families who’ve walked for weeks, their children growing weak with hunger, in need of assistance.

Consecutive poor rainy seasons have resulted in communities struggling year after year, never fully recuperating from previous droughts. Few resources have been made available to ensure families recover and to mitigate future crises.

In some cases, a phenomenon called “green drought” has led to misunderstandings about what families are facing. “Green drought” gives the faulty appearance of a lush landscape when light rain causes greenery to spring up from the earth. Unfortunately, this vegetation is often inedible, leaving people without enough food to eat. To outsiders it seems unbelievable.

In other cases, families are facing a food shortage due to a lack of land on which to grow crops. Land is passed down to children and, over the years, the available plots to produce food have been growing smaller and smaller. With the added pressures of erosion, there is rarely enough land to grow the food needed, despite how much or how little it rains.

These challenges, combined with climate change, extreme and consistent poverty and conflict are just some of the causes of this grave situation.

Dedicated Canadian humanitarian agencies, including the members of the HUMANITARIAN COALITION — CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, Plan Canada and Save the Children Canada — have been monitoring the situation for months and we’ve been responding with urgently needed assistance to help some of the millions struggling to survive. We have been working in the region for decades and have gone to great lengths to prepare the communities we work with to adapt to droughts and other shocks. But there is a limit to what we can do to raise money in the early stages of a crisis, particularly one as complex and misunderstood as this one.

It’s very difficult to rally support for a situation before it becomes a full-blown emergency. It is also easier for an organization to prove it has dealt with an emergency rather than averted one.

The net effect of all this is that the crisis gets worse until it becomes so serious that it cannot be ignored. But by the time the crisis is public and the public fully understands the urgency of it, it may almost be too late. By acting early, we can have a far greater effect for much less money. The United Nations estimates that every dollar spent in prevention saves $7 in emergency spending.

Our organizations have scaled up our efforts in the region and are responding to the urgent needs of the millions of people affected. The priority now is to deliver life-saving food and water, but we are also working, together and with our UN partners, on longer-term solutions such as livelihoods support, strengthening water and sanitation systems and education.

A massive increase in emergency aid is needed right now to save lives and to protect people’s livelihoods, so they can rebuild once the crisis is over. That’s why, in Canada, the HUMANITARIAN COALITION launched an emergency appeal for East Africa. But it’s vital that governments and donors also invest in longer-term support for these areas, to help people cope with increasingly frequent droughts and to prevent future crises.

There is no time to waste. We cannot stand by and watch this tragedy unfold.

Kevin McCort, President and CEO, CARE Canada

Robert Fox, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada

Pierre Véronneau, Executive Director, Oxfam-Québec

Rosemary McCarney, President and CEO, Plan Canada

Patricia Erb, President and CEO, Save the Children Canada