A history of African famines points to political, economic and ecological turmoil

How the UN and the rest of the world define famine is the difference between facts and images.
The UN defines famine as when at least one in five households faces extreme food shortages, a third of people are suffering acute malnutrition and a minimum of two deaths per 10,000 can be attributed to starvation.

In Somalia, half the population of 7.5 million falls into the first two categories. The number of deaths cannot be easily calculated because of the presence of Al Qaeda-linked militants who are denying lifesaving aid to much of the population. But many, many have already perished.

The world defines famine in another way, with the repeated showing of images of stick thin figures that stare listlessly into cameras; desperate mothers caring for emaciated children too weak to brush away the swarming flies that seem to be the only thing prospering in a blighted landscape.

These sights are as familiar as they are distressing. And it is the continent of Africa that most people associate with the condition of famine.

In fact, it is the Horn of Africa region that is generally the worst afflicted. It is here that political, economic and ecological turmoil combine to catastrophic effect; a region where for centuries the scales have been finely balanced between survival and death.

Between 1888 and 1892, famine ravaged Ethiopia after a cattle disease destroyed as much as 90 per cent of herds. A third of the population died.

In neighbouring Sudan in the same period, hunger was exacerbated by the imposition of cash crops such as cotton on local farmers and the depredations of Islamic Mahdists militants.

Famine occurred again in Ethiopia after a drought in 1913. The hungry years between 1972 and 1974 in Wollo, north-eastern Ethiopia, may have killed up to 80,000. The 1973 oil crisis, which pushed food prices to levels unaffordable to many people, was a significant factor. Rioting fuelled by complaints of corruption eventually forced the emperor, Haile Selassie, into exile.

Ten years later, the attention of the world was once again drawn to terrible scenes of human suffering despite the efforts of the Marxist government of Ethiopia to cover it up. Estimated deaths: 600,000 to one million, a figure that would have been higher without millions in aid raised by the 1985 Live Aid concerts.

Now it is 2011. The Famine Early Warning Network (FewsNet) estimates that southern Somalia is experiencing catastrophic food shortages; the rest of the country, along with much of neighbouring Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya is designated to be in a state between crisis and emergency.

Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM

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