Famine and Hope in the Horn of Africa

NAIROBI – Yet again, famine stalks the Horn of Africa. More than ten million people are fighting for survival, mainly pastoralist communities in the hyper-arid regions of Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya. Every day brings news of more deaths and massive inflows of starving people into refugee camps in Kenya, across the border from Somalia.

The immediate cause of this disaster is clear: the rains have failed for two years running in the dry regions of East Africa. These are places where water is so scarce year after year that crop production is marginal at best. Millions of households, with tens of millions of nomadic or semi-nomadic people, tend camels, sheep, goats, and other livestock, which they move large distances to reach rain-fed pasturelands. When the rains fail, the grasses shrivel, the livestock die, and communities face starvation.

Pastoralism has long been a harrowing existence in the Horn of Africa. The location of life-supporting pasturelands is determined by the unstable and largely unpredictable rains, rather than by political boundaries. Yet we live in an era when political boundaries, not the lives of nomadic pastoralists, are sacrosanct. These boundaries, together with growing populations of sedentary farmers, have hemmed in pastoralist communities.

The political boundaries exist as a legacy of the colonial era, not as the result of cultural realities and economic needs. Somalia, for example, contains only a part of the Somali-speaking pastoralist population, with large numbers living across the border in Kenya and Ethiopia. As a result, the Ethiopian-Somalia border has been war-torn for decades.