The worst food crisis the world has seen since the Great Chinese Famine of the late 1950s has East Africa in its grip, and international aid groups are struggling to get help to more than 11 million people who might otherwise die of hunger and malnutrition-related diseases. As the hard-to-fathom famine spreads throughout the region, killing crops and wiping out herds of livestock, hundreds of thousands of desperate people are swarming into squalid refugee camps. Here's an overview of the crisis:
What areas are affected?
The whole of East Africa is suffering under severe drought conditions, but the hardest-hit areas are Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and parts of Uganda, Eritrea, and Djibouti. This triangular-shaped region, sometimes known as the Horn of Africa, is now being called the "Triangle of Death" by aid workers who are stunned by the scale of devastation they're witnessing.
How bad is this famine?
It's among the most severe humanitarian crises in decades, and it's far from over. The numbers of dead and dying people are "shocking," says Mark Bowden of the United Nations, as quoted by Britain's Financial Times. "We witnessed the sight of families stumbling into the [refugee] camps through the bitter Ogaden desert and receiving their first nutritious meals in months. In most cases, that exodus took a week to 10 days of walking through the desert. It was heart-wrenching," says a U.S. State Department spokesman.
What's causing this food crisis?
The entire region has been experiencing a prolonged drought for many years, and some experts are blaming climate change. "We have had three severe droughts in the last decade in Kenya, southern Somalia and Ethiopia," says Gareth Owen of Save the Children, as quoted by the Financial Times. "It used to be one [drought] every 10 to 12 years. The cycle has got shorter."
Is nature alone to blame?
Not at all. The region has been infected with decades of political instability, corruption, and warfare, particularly in southern Somalia, where the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab — which is believed to have ties to al Qaeda — has made it nearly impossible to deliver aid to famine victims. "The war in Somalia is primarily responsible for the worst that is happening," says John Vidal in Britain's Guardian. "To pin this crisis on drought or climate change is wrong. This is an entirely predictable, traditional, man-made disaster."
How are people managing?
Wretchedly. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have turned refugee camps into teeming cities without medical aid, sanitation, or water — and these refugees are the ones lucky enough to have survived the arduous trek to a camp. The largest of these, the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, has a population approaching 400,000. "It's almost as if they have been abandoned by humanity," says Azad Essa, as quoted by NPR.
What is being done to help?
Aid is on the way, though some are criticizing the efforts as too slow. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the U.S. will provide an additional $28 million in aid on top of the more than $431 million in food and non-food emergency aid already pledged. The European Union has promised almost $230 million in assistance, and the U.N. World Food Program is actively delivering assistance to millions in the region.