Lessons Unlearned: Why Another Gigantic Famine Looms in Africa

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Boureima Hama / AFP / Getty Images

A woman prepares a meal on February 4, 2012 at a Malian refugees camp in Chinegodar, western Niger, close to the Malian border. Like Mauritania, many people in Mali are in need of food aid.

In Gaet Teidouma, a small village in a plain of sand and rocks more than 800 km (500 miles) east of Mauritania's capital Nouakchott, Kertouma Mint Sedatty tries to feed her 8-month-old son Mohammed in a tent made from sticks and rags. It's not going well. Mohammed sucks desperately, but Sedatty hardly has milk to feed the child. "We ran out of food a few days ago," says the 39-year-old mother of seven. "My children are hungry. Our three cows can't find anything to eat and stopped giving milk. It's going to be a very difficult year." She pauses. "Most people won't survive."

Not even a month after the U.N. announced Somalia's famine was over — notwithstanding the deaths of between 100,000 and 150,000 people in the past year — another hunger crisis of equal size is looming on the continent. Last year, around 13 million people in the Horn of Africa needed food aid. Now aid agencies warn failed harvests in the Sahel, the band of desert and scrub that runs south of the Sahara, mean 12 million more people require assistance. And it is six months until the next rains, if they arrive.

The Sahel stretches, west to east, from Senegal to Mauritania, Mali Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Mauritania, a country that is three times the size of Arizona but has the smallest volume of potable water of any nation in the world, is one of the worst affected. A third of its population is already at risk of hunger. The primary cause is a drought last year described as the worst for decades by the U.N. As a result, food prices have doubled or tripled, while the price of livestock — often the main store of wealth in the Sahel — plunged as pastures turned to desert and the animals began dying of thirst. Nor are such instances of failed rains isolated. A 2011 study by the Center for Forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, found rainfall in the Sahel has almost halved since 1954.

In a region already poor and sparsely governed, the drought has intensified competition for food and water, and violent unrest — like recent intertribal battles over cattle in South Sudan — is rising. In a grain storage near Gaet Teidouma, stock manager Jeddou Ould Abdallahi looks helplessly at the few remaining sacks of cereal stacked against the whitewashed walls. There is no way they will feed hundreds of people in surrounding villages until the next harvest in September. "We are on the brink of a famine," he says.

But droughts don't inevitably mean famine. While they may set the conditions for starvation, only human beings ensure it. The world has more than enough food to feed itself. Redistributing it to those who lack their share is the job of large and well-funded international aid agencies, particularly the World Food Program. In January, Oxfam and Save the Children admitted in a report on last year's famine in Somalia that 100,000 people died unnecessarily due to the slowness of the relief effort. Can a repeat be avoided in the Sahel?

Only if the world acts now. The Sahel poses a challenge to mass food-aid distribution: it is far larger than Somalia and though it is not consumed by civil war, it does experience fighting in parts. Northern Mali is currently the scene of a Tuareg rebellion, as is northern Nigeria, where an Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, is waging a campaign of bombings and assassinations against the state. Mali and Niger are also home to al-Qaeda's franchise, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

Much more important is the question of whether there will be enough food to distribute. Today barely half of the $650 million the U.N. says it needs has even been pledged, let alone handed over. "Within months, people will begin to starve unless we act," warns the European Union's humanitarian-aid commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva. Johannes Schoors, country director of aid organization CARE in Niger, laments: "Certain donors still want to see dying children before they make available funds." That mitigates against both timely disaster relief and preventative programs in agricultural development or adaptation to climate change that might provide a long-term solution to a region now experiencing frequent hunger crises. "We need to tackle the underlying causes of food insecurity; otherwise, we will face a crisis every year," says Schoors. "But who can afford to finance that?"