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Famine is not made in Africa

Millions have watched in horror the TV pictures of the famine in Africa. Over 11 million people in the Horn of Africa – Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and parts of Uganda – face starvation, according to the United Nations.

The refusal of the world's governments to act on climate change, and the debt-fuelled financial crisis, have combined to create a human catastrophe. There is enough food to feed everyone in the world, but food prices are at an all-time high.

There have been no real rains since last April and there is little water, pasture or arable land left. There is some food, of course – but at prices that most people cannot afford.

The West denounces the Shabab rebel government for refusing foreign aid until now but forgets their role in undermining one of the ancient cradles of trade and civilisation. British and Italian colonialism began the carve-up then the US invasion of 1993 led to the division of the country. War and conflict have combined with the extreme fragility of the climate to create the current disaster.

In 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that by 2030 the number of climate-related deaths, from disease, malnutrition, flooding and crop failures, would be 10 million. Like global warming, this process is happening faster than anyone predicted and the figure could be more than reached in 2011, almost 20 years earlier than forecast.

Capitalism's great Chinese economic miracle is also proving unsustainable, as the water runs out in the north of the country. Like Somalia, the north China plain has fragile water resources and these have been squandered to develop giant industrial cities, such as Beijing and Tianlin, and “modern” agriculture.

Now many rivers have dried up because of a long drought, with the situation worsened by diverting and damming their natural flow. The industrial cities are using up underground aquifers faster than they can replenish. The original estimate for when they would dry up was 30 years but it's happening even faster and the Chinese authorities have no answers.

And when governments have no answers, watch out for wars over resources.

The UN Security Council met yesterday in Canada to talk about climate change as a security issue. They heard Achim Steiner from the UN Environment Programme telling them climate change will "exponentially" increase the scale of natural disasters.

The crisis in the Horn of Africa, he warned, shows that "our capacity to handle these kinds of events is proving a challenge, particularly if they occur simultaneously and start affecting, for instance, global food markets, regional food security issues, displacing people, creating refugees across borders".

The global market will always give corporations and financial speculators opportunities. For example the Russian wheat crop has recovered this year but in the US and Canada heavy rain delayed planting and as a result prices remain high.

But when big countries appear to profit at the expense of others in a trade war, it isn't long before politicians start to present it as an act of actual war.

Our modern day "four horsemen of the apocalypse" are war, famine, profit-driven capitalism and climate change, with capitalism in the role of the false god that ushers in the other three.

Of course, we have the resources to deal with the crisis in the Horn of Africa. We can tackle climate change. A wealth of research sets out what we need to do in the short, medium and long term. We can grow and distribute enough food. We can overcome war by creating the economic and social conditions for peace. But we can't vanquish climate change, war and famine until we vanquish capitalism and free our shared resources from its grip.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
21 July 2011

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Your Say

Susan Jappie says:

I was so glad to read this deep explanation of the causes of the famine in the horn of Africa, as I cried with the former Ghanaian president as he watched the women and children dying of hunger after their long trek from their lands and livestock devastated by colonialism, capitalism and climate change. It should not be this way.

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