Landmines and the 2012 Famine in East Africa

Famines are the confluence of environmental and political factors.  Insufficient rainfall or poor harvests aren’t enough; political actors have to actively prevent the delivery of food assistance to those who need it.  Often food assistance is deliberately withheld: one is starving the opposition, with a criminally-broad definition of who the opposition is.  Landmines assist in the withholding of assistance; either by deliberately seeking to interfere with travel and transit or by disrupting refugee movements.

The situation as of November 2011:

In 2011, tens of thousands of people in East Africa died as a result of famine.  Famine conditions continue in Somalia as of this writing due to the lack of rainfall in October – December 2010 and lower-than-average rainfall in April-June 2011 and due to the lack of an adequate humanitarian response.  The needed humanitarian response was constrained by a lack of urgency from donor countries to provide food and financial aid to international relief agencies and the restrictions on access to famine-stricken areas by Al Shabab, the major rebel force in Somalia.  FEWS Net (the Famine Early Warning System Network) predicts that Famine conditions (defined as “Catastrophe” on the IPC Food Insecurity Scale here: will lift by the new year although 250,000 people still face imminent starvation and child mortality rates will remain high due to outbreaks of infectious diseases.  So while the “famine” will end, “emergency” conditions will continue for the foreseeable future, if conditions remain unchanged (FEWS Net, pdf).

An emerging hunger crisis – a “food security alert” – is occurring in Sudan along the border with newly independent South Sudan. More than 3 million Sudanese are facing food insecurity and “harvest prospects are significantly lower than last year and the five-year average, and an early start to the lean season is expected in March / April instead of May / June” (FEWS Net, pdf). Just as in Somalia, central Sudan has seen irregular rainfall patterns that have constrained the harvest and FEWS Net is expecting food security to worsen to “Crisis” levels, based solely on availability of food.

Unfortunately for both Sudan and Somalia, the climate is not the only factor to worry about.  While for Somalia, FEWS Net reported a general improvement in the situation, that improvement was based upon the ability of humanitarian agencies to provide assistance after the withdrawal of Al Shabab from Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia in August.  In Sudan, the rainfall shortages have been accompanied by an outbreak of violence between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the rebel group, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army / Movement – North (SPLM/A – N). 

Why things will get worse:

On November 28th, Al Shabab banned 16 aid agencies from operating in central and southern Somalia, the areas hardest hit by the 2011 famine and those still facing famine conditions (The Independent).  This news followed several weeks of positive news about the lifting of the famine and the success international organizations had been having in delivering food assistance (The Independent; IRIN News; Voice of America).  Al Shabab’s actions were in response to the invasions of Somalia by Kenyan (IRIN News) and Ethiopian (Al Jazeera) armed forces.  Al Shabab claimed that it was banning the aid agencies as a result of “illicit activities and misconducts” but others believe Al Shabab’s decision was based on the “belief that aid groups are serving as spies for outside countries or as vehicles to undermine support for al-Shabaab’s harsh and strict interpretation of Islam” (The Independent). 

Since the ban has been in place, “Humanitarian activities in the parts of the country left by the banned aid agencies have been reduced to ‘almost nothing’… [and] critical services such as food, water, health and nutrition had been suspended” (IRIN News).  To enforce the ban, Al Shabab has changed its tactics employing “suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, ambushes and even frontal attacks against soft targets” (IRIN News).  Recent news reports have shown that Al Shabab is using landmines and improvised explosive devices to sow fear in the refugee camps and disrupt travel by Kenyan armed forces across the Kenya – Somalia border.  Therefore landmines are actively being used to prevent humanitarian assistance from reaching famine-stricken regions of Somalia. 

The United Nations has issued a $1.5 billion request for humanitarian aid for Somalia for 2012  While the rains have returned to Somalia, ending the 2011 famine, the humanitarian crisis is far from over.  Thousands of Somalis are still in displacement camps, having originally sought refuge from the drought, now they seek refuge from the expanding war, and so have not planted their fields for the next harvest (CBS News).  “The drought in Southern Somalia is over but no one is going home” (The Independent).

In Sudan the poor harvests in the states along the new border between Sudan and South Sudan have been exacerbated by the outbreak of hostilities between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the rebel group, Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N), an offshoot of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army that has become the government of South Sudan.  Refugees are streaming into South Sudan and Ethiopia and north to Khartoum.  Humanitarian agencies have been banned from the area by the various armed forces so food aid can’t get to anyone who has not been able to flee.  As for the refugees, those that flee into Unity State in South Sudan are at risk from the anti-tank mines that have been placed in the roadways by yet another rebel group fighting against the South Sudanese government (FEWS Net, pdf).  The United Nations has even been relocating displacement camps away from the mine-affected regions of Unity State (All Africa).

The situation in Sudan is worsening.  FEWS Net predicts that the denial of access for humanitarian aid will drive the region to the brink of what is officially defined as “famine,” by March of 2012 (FEWS Net, pdf).  Should the conflict deepen or become more entrenched, by the summer we will see the regions along the Sudan – South Sudan border facing full-fledged famine, just as we saw in Somalia this past summer. 

In both Sudan and Somalia, the problems arise from poor harvests due to drought or irregular rainfall, but it is the political conditions and the conflicts in the countries that make these famines.  By preventing humanitarian aid from reaching those who need it most, the rebels and governments in these countries are manufacturing famines.  They use landmines and IEDs to enforce the bans on humanitarian access; landmines aimed at the opponents have the same effect: by closing the roads to your opponents, you are also closing them to your allies and to humanitarian relief.

Once the droughts and conflicts are over, the presence of landmines will threaten the lives of returning refugees.  Existing minefields in Sudan (IRIN News) and South Sudan (All Africa) and Somalia (UNMAS, pdf) have killed and injured those who have fled violence and drought and when the rains and peace return, the mines will remain, waiting to kill and injure refugees when they try to come home.

UNMAS has issued an appeal for mine action support for 2012 as part of the consolidated UN appeal (CBS News).  In recognition of the increased risk from new mines and IEDs, UNMAS is seeking $7.4 million for 2012 (Mine Action, pdf) compared to the $4.6 million requested in 2011 (UNMAS).  A similar increase is probably needed to support mine action in Sudan, but in both countries, access is limited.  The kidnapping of Danish Demining Group staff in Somalia earlier this year (BBC News) demonstrates the ability of rebels and others to enforce bans on humanitarian agencies. 

As 2011 closes, the brief notes of hope that existed as South Sudan declared its independence and Al Shabab withdrew from Mogadishu have been eclipsed by renewed violence and continuing hunger.  The famine in Somalia in 2011 was the worst in 20 years; it has not ended and now a new crisis emerges in eastern Sudan.  Violence and landmines combine with drought to breed famine.  The 2012 starving season will be upon us very soon; let’s hope the international community responds quicker next year than they did this year.

 Michael P. Moore, December 16, 2011

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