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The underlying causes of food insecurity

Drought and conflict are the main factors that have exacerbated the problem of food production, distribution and access. High rates of population growth and poverty have also played a part, within an already difficult environment of fragile ecosystems. The fact that almost 80 percent of the population of the countries of the region is rural, and depends almost exclusively on agriculture for its consumption and income needs, means that measures to address the problems of poverty and food insecurity must mainly be found within the agricultural sector.

The Horn of Africa presents perhaps the most difficult challenge anywhere in the world to achieving the goal set out in the UN Secretary-General's Millennium Report -to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. At the FAO World Food Summit in 1996, world leaders committed themselves, in the Rome Declaration and Plan of Action, to reducing by half the numbers of hungry and undernourished people in the world by 2015. Today, it is estimated that more than 50 percent of the people in the region survive on less than US$1 per person per day.9 In each country, different poverty lines have been set, reflecting in monetary terms the resources needed to purchase a diet that provides the minimum acceptable energy requirements, but the overall picture is similar and it is one of very widespread and deep deprivation.

The connection between poverty and food insecurity is important. Food production is significant because, for the majority of the poor, agriculture is the main source of livelihood and some 76 percent of the IGAD population is classed as agricultural. However, it is only when poverty can be alleviated or diminished that the level of food insecurity is reduced. Consequently, the long-term solution to food insecurity lies beyond the production of additional food and includes the need to address rural livelihoods in general. Social safety nets of various sorts are also part of the solution to absolute poverty and food insecurity, not only in exceptional circumstances such as drought, but also over the long periods required to arrive at socially inclusive sustainable solutions.


Drought and other climatic extremes are major factors contributing to vulnerability to food insecurity. In the Horn of Africa there is no year or season in which the whole region receives normal rainfall and is free from climatic anomalies such as flood or drought. Drought is the most catastrophic natural event that causes widespread periodic famine in the region, but it is by no means the only natural hazard facing the people of the area. Periodically, floods afflict localized parts of even the driest areas (as was the case at the outset of the current crisis), and the threat of locust swarms is often present. For example, during 1997/98 severe floods were observed over many parts of the region, and were followed by the drought that has persisted over parts of the Horn since late 1998.

Drought is a fact of life in many parts of the Horn of Africa - it has been recorded from as far back as 253 B.C. Large parts of the region are arid and semi-arid, with annual rainfall of less than 500 mm and subject to a high degree of unreliability, both from year to year and in the distribution within each year. In the last 30 years there has been at least one major drought episode in each decade. There were serious droughts in 1973/74, 1984/85, 1987, 1992 to 1994 and, now, 1999/2000. In Ethiopia alone, the 1984 drought affected 8.7 million people, about 1 million died and 1.5 million livestock perished. In the Sudan 8.5 million people were affected by the same drought, and about 1 million people and 7 million livestock died. In 1987, about 2 million people in the Sudan, more than 5.2 million in Ethiopia, 1 million in Eritrea and 200 000 in Somalia were severely affected. The current drought, which started in 1998, is affecting about 16 million people in the Horn of Africa (see Map 2). Drought is, therefore, a recurring phenomenon in the region and there will always be certain locations experiencing localized drought conditions.

Drought-affected area

As well as the well-known and documented cyclical nature of drought, there is also evidence of increasing climatic instability in the Horn of Africa. Drought is becoming more frequent and the cycles more severe. Floods are also common in the region. In countries where the infrastructure is less well developed, even moderately sized floods, such as those that can be expected on average once every ten years, can lead to disruption of road and rail transport, cuts in telecommunications and the breakdown of electricity and water supplies. The major direct impacts of flooding are the destruction of crops, the drowning of animals and the siltation of reservoirs. In some parts of the region, periods of above-average rainfall are triggered at certain times by the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), while droughts are associated with the cold phase disturbance, or La Niña.

Drought has a perhaps unique impact on agricultural systems because of its duration, which often extends over several seasons. The people of the region have, over centuries, evolved mechanisms for coping with the risks of the environment in which they live. Farmers have, up to a point, learned to cope with late rains or with the mid-season cessation of rains, spreading risk by planting different crops and at different times, through on-farm storage and by resorting to hunting and gathering at times of stress. For the pastoralists, travelling with their herds and flocks to follow the rains and the growth in pasture is a natural part of their system, while setting areas aside for grazing reserves and splitting herds to minimize risk are elements of their coping mechanism. Increases in population have, however, disturbed the equilibrium between people and natural resources.

The overall degradation of the natural resource base, in particular land and vegetation, has led to increasing rainwater losses through runoff (and associated soil erosion), which in turn has exacerbated the impact of drought. This downward spiral of environmental degradation has resulted in further land productivity decline, loss of biodiversity and continuing desertification.


The Horn of Africa has been plagued by conflict since time immemorial. Although the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has attracted the most media attention, the region has suffered from almost continuous civil conflicts over the last 30 years in Ethiopia (as formerly defined), the Sudan, Somalia and Uganda, and these have spilled over into Djibouti. The countries of the region devote between 8 and 50 percent of central government expenditure, or between 2 and 8 percent of gross national product (GNP), to the military, totalling US$2 billion in 1997. These figures rise substantially, of course, whenever conflict flares up. Conflicts in the region undoubtedly exacerbate the famine and food insecurity triggered by drought. Even before the recent hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea, more than 1 million people from the region were refugees. Large populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) were to be found in the Sudan, Somalia and Uganda. Conflict removes able-bodied men from agricultural production and, incidentally, places an extra work burden on women. It also diverts resources, directly and indirectly, from more productive and socially beneficial uses, and tests the willingness of the international community to provide assistance.

Transboundary conflicts hit the headlines but, especially in areas where the pressure on available natural resources is intense, local conflicts abound. Pastoral areas, which are under pressure from the expansion of cropping into marginal areas and increasingly degraded rangelands, are especially susceptible to local conflict and cattle raids, which break out when people have ready access to modern weapons. Northern Kenya and northern Uganda have been particularly prone to prolonged outbreaks of such violence. Such tendencies are exacerbated when drought hits and the scramble for limited grazing and water intensifies. Poor countries, which have few resources to allocate to minorities, to the regions and to remote areas, are particularly vulnerable to internal conflict. Consequently, any measures that promote growth and reduce food insecurity are also likely to help conflict prevention.

Conflict, whether transboundary or internal, exacerbates the vulnerability of poor people, displacing them from their homes and depleting their assets. It makes emergency relief operations directed towards IDPs difficult and dangerous for those involved. Conflict also has a much more insidious impact on long-term development efforts, diverting scarce resources, both national and external, away from development activities and into war. The fungibility of funds means that donors face the risk of funding conflict when their intention is to alleviate poverty through development programmes.


The population of the Horn of Africa has more than doubled since the first of the major droughts of recent times hit the region in 1974, and it is projected to increase by a further 40 percent by 2015. The population dynamics of the region are not encouraging (see Table 1). Population growth rates have historically been high, at 2.5 to 3.5 percent, and are still at least 2 percent everywhere. The momentum for future increases in population remains strong because of the age structure and youthfulness of the population. Fertility and mortality rates are high and the low prevalence of contraception use almost everywhere means that there is little chance of a decline in fertility in the immediate future. Family sizes are large, especially in rural areas, and the dependency burden 10 is high, exacerbated in many countries by the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS, which strikes the working-age population hardest.


Demographic indicators


Average annual
population growth

Total fertility rate

Dependency *
ratio, 1997*

Population per ha
of arable land or
permanent cropland*

prevalence (%)**











































Sources: * UNFPA. 1999. The state of world population. ** UNDP. 1999. Human development report.

Over the last 25 years, there has been considerable rural-urban migration, the rate of which is projected to increase. However, there has also been an increase in the number of people dependent on agriculture. Population increase has led to a dramatic increase in energy demand and this has been met mainly by wood (from range and forest) and organic matter such as animal manure. The natural resource base has, if anything, declined as a result of land degradation and urban encroachment on arable land. To the extent that there has been any increase in the area of land being farmed, this has taken place largely in marginal areas, using systems that may not be sustainable. Shrinking land resources have not been compensated for by increases in land productivity. Average cereal yields are a mere 860 kg/ha and, where comparative data are available, statistics confirm the general impression that yields are declining. For example, in the Sudan and Uganda, average yields have dropped by 12 and 18 percent, respectively, over the last decade.

The result is that, throughout the region, farmers have to cope with reduced productivity and less land from which to feed themselves and to supply food to the ever-expanding cities. In many parts of the region, the pressure of the human and livestock populations on the resource base has increased to the point where land use, employing currently available technology and management systems, is not sustainable. This is particularly true in the arid and semi-arid lands which make up 70 percent of the region and where the resource base is fragile. A FAO study from 1982 11 shows that, even then (with data from the mid-1970s), for most of the region population exceeded estimated long-term carrying capacity (see Map 3).

Human population carrying capacity

9 Figures for the proportion of the population living on less than US$1/person/day are available for: Ethiopia (46 percent), Kenya (50 percent) and Uganda (69 percent) (UNICEF. 1999. The state of the world's children, 1999. New York.).

10 The population aged less than 15 years and more than 64 years as a proportion of the working population..

11FAO. 1982. Potential population-supporting capacities of lands in the developing world. Technical Report FPA/INT/513..

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