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How to See a Famine Before It Starts

Robinson Meyer


Thanks to El Niño, some parts of Ethiopia are currently facing the worst drought in 30 years. More than 10 million people in the country will likely need food aid this year. Over the weekend, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon implored the world to attend to this, one of its lesser-recognized ongoing humanitarian crises.

He made an unusual pitch.

“We face unrelenting humanitarian needs around the world. Many are generated by conflict and displacement. These human-made crises are extremely difficult to resolve and can last for years or even decades,” said Ban.

But the emergency in Ethiopia was different, he said: “We know it will pass, and the situation will improve. This crisis will end.”

This made providing help now especially important, he said.

Many experts are worried that 2016 will be an unusually bad year for hunger around the world. El Niño brings pleasant if disconcertingly warm weather to North America, but its consequences elsewhere in the world can be far more devastating. In addition to eastern Africa, rains have so far failed or faltered this year in Central America, parts of the Caribbean, and southern Africa.

Not only are hunger crises usually temporary, as Ban notes, but they also differ from wars or mass-migrations in other ways. Hunger happens slowly. Droughts develop across months, as one rainless day follows another. Then, as local markets skitter to a halt and shut down, food insecurity and even famine can arrive.

This lack of speed makes it relatively easy to predict hunger. And, accordingly, the Ethiopian emergency was well forecast. As a climate reporter, I’ve heard fretting about the situation in the Horn of Africa since at least October. That was when I began to wonder: How do you know when a famine is coming?

The article's full-text is available here.

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