Somalia: Tipping points in the first famine of the 21st century

We hear the word “famine” a lot, particularly in reference to Africa and food-related problems. In fact, the word is often overused. Famine is a very specific event - a really, really terrible one - in which we see lots of people of all ages dying as a result of food shortages.

For the United Nations, the word has a technical definition of two or more people out of 100,000 dying each day, and acute malnutrition among a third of young children.

In reality, famines don’t happen much anymore. There were a handful in the late 20th century, most notably in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan, but it’s been quite a long time since we’ve seen a real famine.

So it is with great significance that the United Nations is now using the word “famine” to describe the situation in parts of East Africa. What we are more accustomed to seeing are food crises and nutrition crises. These are periods of either food shortage (low volume of food available) or malnutrition (poor nutritional intake), which are often - but not always - related.

Drought tends to cause food shortages. This will often result in malnutrition in some (but not necessarily all) parts of a population. Those most at risk of malnutrition include children and infants, pregnant and nursing mothers, the elderly, and those who have chronic sickness, particularly but not exclusively HIV and AIDS.

Malnutrition, however, can also result from poor feeding practices, disease epidemics, and other factors that are compounded by but not necessarily caused by food shortages. Malnutrition kills, but most of the time it kills only the vulnerable, and most notably, young children. On its own, malnutrition is rarely the cause of death, but it makes children vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, measles, diarrhoeal disease or chest infections.

Disease and malnutrition then interact in a vicious cycle such that as children get sick, they are less able to absorb essential nutrients, and therefore get weaker and more susceptible to the illness. It is among young children (under the age of 5) that we see the earliest casualties in a food and nutrition crisis, but the death of children by malnutrition does not in itself constitute a famine. Rather, as was seen in Niger in 2005 and 2010, it causes a nutrition crisis.

This is also where we are at with much of the Horn of Africa right now. Children are dying, now. Emergency thresholds for malnutrition are internationally recognised as 15 percent of a population of children being acutely malnourished. In some parts of the Somali population, as many as 30 percent of children are malnourished.

Fresh data from the UN suggests that we are now facing famine in parts of the region. The failing rains (in some cases, for the third consecutive season) have caused crops to die, cattle to die, and people to flee their homes in search of food and water. This is coupled in Somalia with an ongoing civil war that is making access to and support for these populations very difficult. Many are congregating in overcrowded relief camps, where they are more susceptible to the spread of disease.

All of this means that while we’re not technically looking at a “famine” across the entire region right now, we’re seeing food shortages and a malnutrition crisis that is extremely alarming, and which observers are now saying could be precursors to famine conditions. And in the worst-hit areas of southern Somalia, we have already reached the tipping point.

Agencies like World Vision have been responding to this crisis in the Horn of Africa for many months — ever since it became clear that a crisis was building — and now, as the situation worsens, we continue to provide as much support as possible.