‘Our animals used to feed us, but now we feed them – they are dying and we are next’

Commentary/Opinion health Hon of Africa News

By Paul O’Brien

MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE that famine is a shortage of food in an area or country. Famine is not always a “shortage”.

During the Irish famine in 1845-1849, food was exported from Ireland at the same time as the majority of the population faced mass starvation.

Most famines are due to a lack of “access” to food or the “affordability” of available food. Food may be available for purchase, but the very poor and vulnerable often cannot afford to buy it as they do not have the money.

Global factors

The current hunger crises in East and West Africa, as well as Yemen, Afghanistan and Haiti affect over 800 million people and are the culmination of a number of factors, including; recurrent drought due to climate change, Covid-19 and conflict.

Add the impact of the Ukraine crisis, and we reach a point where food is no longer affordable for very poor or vulnerable people who are most susceptible to increases in the price of food.

We have experienced the cost of living increases in Ireland, and many different countries around the globe are experiencing the same. However, in Ireland, the average family may spend 20-30% of their monthly income on food, whereas families in poorer countries can spend 80-90% of their income purchasing food.

On my recent visit to Somaliland, I met ordinary nomadic and pastoralist people who firmly believe that climate change has occurred and it has devastated their livelihoods and their means of making a living. They explained that 30 years ago, there were 4-5 years of “normal rains” and one year of contending with “poor rains”.

Animal carcass on the side of the road

In recent years they have noted 4-5 years of very poor rains and maybe one year of good rainfall. They blame this on climate change. However, considering that Somalia emits only slightly more carbon than the significantly smaller country of Andorra, climate change is not the fault of the Somalis.

Recurrent droughts

As pastoralists, they relied on their herds for food and coped with a bad year by selling some of their animals to buy food. At the moment, because of recurrent and intensive droughts, there is no water or pasture for their animals – so their herds are being wiped out.

There is no social welfare in a country like Somalia. So if your way of making a living is gone due to drought, you have to move and become an Internally Displace Person (IPD), live in a makeshift hut on land you do not own and scavage as a day labourer to make ends meet. More significant movements of IDPs are happening throughout Somalia as those affected move to camps searching for new forms of survival, including labouring.

The daily rate for labouring is around $2 per day in Somaliland. During the Covid-19 crisis, opportunities for day labour decreased as the Government curtailed population movements and “employers” hesitated to employ people for fear of carrying the virus. This reduced the capacity of IDPs to cope with the crisis.

Reflecting on today, world humanitarian day, as humanitarian workers, our role is fundamentally simple yet very complex due to the environments in which we work. Our humanitarian mandate is to “save lives and ease suffering” by providing food, water, shelter and healthcare to those in need. However, when global factors are at play, such as climate change, internal and international conflict, and a global pandemic, access to affected populations (i.e. those in need) is often complicated and challenging.

We visited the Garbis Village; when we arrived, those living there and people from other villages in the surrounding areas waited to receive their twice-weekly water delivery. There was a palpable mix of joy yet desperation as these people gathered water, their only lifeline for another two to three days.

‘The last resort’

Organisations like Plan International are trucking water to villages at €200 per truck to keep villagers and their remaining animals alive. While drought has been declared in European countries this Summer, these countries have the means to provide water for their citizens. In places like Somaliland, water trucking is the last resort and, for now, the only solution to help these people survive.

Putting cash or vouchers into the hands of very poor families is often the most effective and dignified way to assist poor people. This is what we are also doing in Somaliland. Poorer families are identified by their communities, Plan International then provides a monthly cash grant, using mobile technology to make these transfers.

Today is World Humanitarian Day and now more than ever, the focus must shift to the devastating impacts of climate change on places like Somaliland. It’s important we now look at what humanity as a collective can do to help those on the frontline during this time of record-high humanitarian need.

Paul O’Brien is CEO of Plan International Ireland. He has been working in the INGO sector for over 35 years.

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