I just returned from Kenya, where I delivered emergency support to a grassroots women’s organization based in the drought-stricken northeast. The women there are struggling to provide food, water and medicines to thousands of even harder-hit famine refugees who are pouring into their parched communities from neighboring Somalia.
I felt privileged to be able to bring this life-saving aid. But I also felt angry, because this famine could have been avoided. The starvation is the result of a perfect storm of climate change, political chaos and bad economic policies: not a natural disaster, but a failure of leadership. So while we must bring urgently needed aid to the people threatened by famine, we must also work to address these underlying causes and create sustainable solutions to the crisis.
The severe drought experienced in East Africa is in part the result of climate change brought on by the unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions of far-away, richer countries. As these emissions have pushed global temperatures up and up, climate scientists have warned for years about the increased likelihood of extreme weather patterns, including droughts.
But drought alone does not produce famine. In Somalia, years of war and political instability rendered people even more vulnerable. Once, Somalia had a government that tried to build community resilience to environmental disaster. It ran a program to collect rainwater by digging reservoirs in the ground. But with the collapse of the government in 1991, the program disappeared. It was left to Somali women, traditionally responsible for providing water to their households, to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the effects of drought and famine have been exacerbated by global speculation on food commodities that’s jacked up food prices around the world. The headlong push to deregulate global markets has hit the food chain, and hard. As traders turn huge profits, the price of survival staples like rice, corn and wheat shoots up. When drought hits, poor people who can no longer raise their own food for lack of water, can’t afford to buy it either. Again, it’s rural women, who represent the majority of the world’s subsistence farmers, who are most threatened by these policies.
Climate change, state collapse and exploitative economic policies are big problems, but they have solutions. Taming the cycle of drought requires that industrialized countries immediately and drastically reduce their carbon emissions. It’s actually less complicated than some of our elected officials would have us believe. But developing a post-carbon economy does require prioritizing human survival over short-term corporate profit.
And ensuring the survival of Somali communities will require a viable peace process, one that listens to and incorporates voices of women. Women have little representation in Somalia’s transitional government or at the negotiating table. Yet women have long played a vital role as peacemakers between clans. Because clans are the organizing unit of Somali society, and reflect both family and political ties, institutionalizing women’s peacemaking role at the national level can be a key to progress.
Finally, we need policies that recognize food as a human right, not just a commodity to be bought and sold. A broad body of human rights laws support this view and the governments of Nicaragua and South Africa, among others, have incorporated the Right to Food in their constitutions.
The Right to Food is particularly crucial to African women, who generally eat last and least when their families gather for meals—yet women grow up to 80% of the continent’s food. These women fight to feed their communities through the worst ravages of climate change and unfair economic practices. Most are stewards of the sustainable agricultural methods that now need to be developed and adapted to meet the twin challenges of feeding people and protecting the planet.
Yifat Susskind is Executive Director of MADRE. MADRE works with women in the Horn of Africa and around the world to realize sustainable solutions to climate change, political violence and harmful economic policies.