Ifra can't produce enough breastmilk because she has not had any food herself. Her eight-month old baby is now at risk of malnutrition.

Famine

A lorry load of food aid arrives in Nguni town, Kyuso District, Eastern Kenya for ActionAid's Food For Assets programme. Beneficiaries received a ration each month in exchange for 12 days work on projects that improve farmland or harvest rainfall. Photo: Danielle Peck/ActionAid

ActionAid’s approach to famine

As with all emergencies, ActionAid has a two-pronged approach: resilience and response.

In high-risk countries ActionAid works with vulnerable communities to improve their ability to cope with drought. We:

  • train people to improve their agricultural practices;
  • help people, especially women, to create alternative livelihoods;
  • provide people with sustainable water sources.

Once the situation looks like it's becoming too severe for people to cope or adapt, it is crucial to launch an emergency response to get them basic food supplies as quickly as possible. We:

  • distribute urgently needed food and water to families at risk;
  • make sure that women and girls can safely access food and water;
  • support women and girls at risk of sexual violence;
  • and we help survivors of violence get the medical help they need.

The importance of acting early

Many studies have shown that an early response is significantly more effective than a later emergency intervention: it saves lives, minimises the devastating long-term consequences and costs less to deliver.

For people who are already hungry, immediate action to provide aid will prevent more serious long-term problems, such as children developing chronic malnutrition that could lead to poor health throughout their life, and farmers selling their animals or farming tools for food, meaning they no longer have a way to earn a living.

For people who are currently at risk, early action and preparedness is needed to build their ability to cope now and reduce the need for emergency aid in the future.

Drought and food crisis in East Africa

In 2017, a complicated set of circumstances, including the cumulative impact of two successive droughts as a result of two climate phenomena – El Niño and the Indian Ocean Dipole – and in some places a long period of conflict and insecurity left millions at risk of hunger across the region.

There was widespread crop failure and livestock death in the worst affected areas, causing families to sell their few remaining assets, such as livestock, and to leave their homes in search of food and water.  

This diminished food production, combined with more systemic issues of long-term failure to invest in agriculture and alternative livelihoods, further exhausted people’s capacity to cope with another shock.

In 2019, climate-change related drought led to crop failures and loss in livestock, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes. Over 60,000 people in the region have been displaced by drought and are in urgent need of support.

    Why are women and girls worst affected by famine?

    Women and girls are nearly always hit hardest in emergencies, and famine is no exception. Malnutrition, weakened immune systems and the resulting spread of disease put an additional strain on women’s traditional responsibility as care givers.

    Fetching water becomes much more physically challenging as mums like Nimo travel further and further afield in their search. As a result, we have seen mothers taking their daughters out of school to help them carry their heavy load.

    Displacement, conflict and having to walk longer distances all increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to violence and sexual assault.

    Within the home, women can also often face aggression and domestic violence as the burden to find food and water increases, and results in strained family relationships.

    Often, owing to cultural customs, women eat last and least and have access to fewer options to migrate, access aid, information and credit.

    ActionAid’s policy manager in Kenya, Ruth Masime, says:

    As a result of the drought women and girls face a triple burden in some cases: to survive, care for their families and evade sexual violence in the process. Urgent action is needed to avert severe hunger, sexual violence and community breakdown.”

    What causes famine?

    The most common circumstances that lead to famine are crop failure, drought and prolonged armed conflict. However, it is not the drought or conflict themselves that cause famine; it is the lack of an adequate response to the drought or conflict that causes famine.

    Once famine has been declared it is too late; thousands of people will already have been seriously and irreversibly affected and people will already be dying. It is therefore essential to recognise the warning signs early and for governments and the international community to respond immediately, and effectively, so that the situation never reaches the devastating scale of a famine.

    Why are women and girls worst affected by famine?

    Women and girls are nearly always hit hardest in emergencies, and famine is no exception. Malnutrition, weakened immune systems and the resulting spread of disease put an additional strain on women’s traditional responsibility as care givers.

    Fetching water becomes much more physically challenging as mums like Nimo travel further and further afield in their search. As a result, we have seen mothers taking their daughters out of school to help them carry their heavy load.

    Displacement, conflict and having to walk longer distances all increase women’s and girls’ vulnerability to violence and sexual assault.

    Within the home, women can also often face aggression and domestic violence as the burden to find food and water increases, and results in strained family relationships.

    Often, owing to cultural customs, women eat last and least and have access to fewer options to migrate, access aid, information and credit.

    ActionAid’s policy manager in Kenya, Ruth Masime, says:

    As a result of the drought women and girls face a triple burden in some cases: to survive, care for their families and evade sexual violence in the process. Urgent action is needed to avert severe hunger, sexual violence and community breakdown.”

    Nimo and her family desperately need food and water, Somaliland

    ActionAid

    Supporting struggling mums in Somaliland

    In Somaliland, 35-year-old Nimo and her children walked for eight days in search of water. What they found instead was a trail of carcasses: cattle, goats and camels – the backbone of the country’s economy.

    I breastfeed my six-month-old son, but he cannot get enough milk as I don’t have food.”

    ActionAid is distributing life-saving food and water to mothers like Nimo, but more support is urgently needed as the situation rapidly worsens.

    Hunger in Kenya

    Chepochemuma, 35, lives in western Kenya.

    Flash floods washed away her crops in 2016, and then a drought in 2017 caused a severe food shortage

    Like so many families, she has had to resort to hunting for anything edible she can find in the bush to feed her eight children. She said:

    I am worried for tomorrow because there is high competition for wild fruits and vegetables.

    If help doesn’t come through any time soon, we might die of hunger.”

    Chepochemuna with her young daughter outside their home in western Kenya

    ActionAid

    Arrow

    Providing water and reducing the risk of violence

    Wubalech Admasu is the manager of a Women's Water Supply and Management Association in Janamora, Ethiopia.

    A severe drought, which began in mid-2015, has destroyed families’ crops and access to water and further marginalised extremely poor and remote communities across the region.

    ActionAid provided 18,000 people in the area with emergency water supplies and helped many thousands more by rehabilitating wells and developing other sustainable water schemes.

    This in turn has helped reduce the risk of violence for women walking long distances in search of water.

    Arrow

    Improving drought resilience in Kenya

    ActionAid's 'Food For Assets' programme has really helped widow and mother of two, Ann, from Isiolo District, Kenya, feel prepared for future drought in her area. In 2013, beneficiaries received a ration each month in exchange for 12 days work on projects that improve farmland or harvest rainfall.

    “The food for assets that we receive while working on the field has gone a long way in helping us to get food. This programme has really taught me how to be prepared in case of any disaster. During the last drought I had to move from my home because there was no food, and I lost 40 goats and 10 cows to famine, but now I am ready for anything.”

    The importance of acting early

    Many studies have shown that an early response is significantly more effective than a later emergency intervention: it saves lives, minimises the devastating long-term consequences and costs less to deliver.

    For people who are already hungry, immediate action to provide aid will prevent more serious long-term problems, such as children developing chronic malnutrition that could lead to poor health throughout their life, and farmers selling their animals or farming tools for food, meaning they no longer have a way to earn a living.

    For people who are currently at risk, early action and preparedness is needed to build their ability to cope now and reduce the need for emergency aid in the future.

    Footnotes

    • 1http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/i0275e/i0275e.pdf

    Top image: Ifra can't produce enough breastmilk because she has not had any food herself. Her eight-month old baby is now at risk of malnutrition. Ashley Hamer /ActionAid

    Page updated 17 November 2021