Where drought is a matter of life and death

Drought in the Horn of Africa makes what we’ve had this year seem insignificant.

Theirs has lasted years; ours broke after three and a half months. Theirs is condemning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to starvation; ours has reduced yields and farm profits and caused food prices to rise for consumers.

But there’s little likelihood of starvation in this country because we have the money to buy what we want – some of it from those countries that have much greater and more urgent needs than we do.

You have doubtless seen and heard the heartbreaking stories coming out of Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Crops have failed completely because of lack of rain. Cattle and goats are dying and the people are eating whatever vegetation they can find to survive. Mothers are carrying sick children to medical centres and refugee camps miles from their villages in search of food and water and medical help. Often they are too late as hunger and dysentery take their dreadful toll and neither the mothers nor their children survive.

Those of us who were around in 1984 and watched Michael Buerk’s harrowing reports telling similar stories on BBC TV news might think this looks like a repeat of that tragic episode. But it isn’t. This time the drought is worse and the potential consequences more serious.

Further, the world had plenty of reserves of food then. Europe had a “grain mountain” and in 1984 British farmers had the best harvest they had ever known. So when the Send a Tonne (of wheat) campaign was launched many were willing and able to respond to try to help the hungry. Band Aid, Live Aid, Comic Relief and other initiatives followed and many lives were saved.

It’s not like that today. Reserves of grain are close to a record low. Droughts, or other yield-sapping climatic phenomena, have affected several key farming areas of the world and there were forecasts of shortages even before we heard of the problems of East Africa. And the world financial crisis will inhibit many individuals and governments from offering aid because “charity begins at home”.

So, what can be done? Sadly, whatever it is will be too little, too late for many of the victims, whose numbers multiply daily. Cynics will shrug their shoulders and say it was ever thus; that’s what happens in Africa. But does it have to be that way? And are we, in the wealthy West, doing all we can to avoid similar catastrophes in the future?

When I see fruit and veg, such as apples, mange touts, green beans, snap peas, lettuces and even roses and the like on supermarket shelves bearing labels showing they came from the very regions we now know are starving I can only say no, we are not. Many of those commodities contain 70% to 80% water and by importing them we are adding to water shortages in those countries as well as eating food grown on land they should be cropping for themselves – not to mention exploiting their cheap labour.

Meanwhile, without a thought for such life-and-death issues, we run down our self-sufficiency for food, urged on by single-issue pressure groups who would claim, if asked, to have the best interests of African people at heart. And we encourage our supermarket buyers to scour the world for the cheapest food to keep down the domestic cost of living.

What a crazy, mixed-up, irresponsible society we are.

David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.

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