Politics of Poverty

A tale of two droughts

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The US agriculture system is prepared to help farmers through the current severe drought, avoiding mass rural migration. But a famine in Somalia has caused over 135,000 to flee while many are dying each day from hunger.

A longer version of this post was published today in McClatchy.

The telephone rang at 6:30am. It was my wife, “We had twenty four hundredths of rain last night.” I savored every word as if they were drops slowly soaking into parched earth.

Abandoned corn in Reno County, KS.  Photo by Jim French.
Abandoned corn in Reno County, KS. Photo by Jim French.

The extreme drought has taken its toll on the region’s agriculture.The winter wheat harvest was lessened by thirty to sixty percent. Rain fed corn has mostly been abandoned or cut for feed. Rangeland grass has long stopped growing.

And yet in the midst of this severe drought, one doesn’t see mass migrations of rural folks.

Why? Since the depression there has been long-term government investment in programs that ensure agricultural resiliency through resource conservation and insurance. Like most farmers who suffered crop losses in June, my crop insurance helped compensate for the loss of income. Moreover, land grant research and extension services have helped spread better farming practices, which have prevented some of the worst consequences of drought.

In short, the US agriculture system is prepared to manage extreme situations, allowing us to avoid the type of mass migrations that destabilize governments and lead to famines elsewhere in the world.

This is not the case in East Africa where another historic drought is taking place. Thousands of Somalis have crossed into refugee camps in Kenya – a country that is also suffering from lack of rainfall. Officially declared a famine by the UN, at least 12 million people are at risk and many are dying each day from hunger. Because of the drought and failed infrastructure, over 135,000 people have fled Somalia into neighboring countries, creating new stresses for governments and exacerbating conflicts.

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where refugees from Somalia arrive everyday.  Photo by Linda Ogwell/Oxfam.
Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya where refugees from Somalia arrive everyday. Photo by Linda Ogwell/Oxfam.

We know there must be an immediate response. The UN estimates that $2.1 billion is needed to stave off a major humanitarian catastrophe. However, in places where chronic drought or the other extremes of climate can have a major impact on food security, there must be longer range investments to build local capacity and economic opportunity to prevent future crises.

Most of those displaced by drought rely on agriculture and food production to earn a living. But official development assistance for agriculture dropped 75 percent during the last three decades. Faltering public investments in developing country agriculture is undoubtedly an underlying cause of the current crisis and has undermined long term food security in many poor countries.

In the last two years, the US has made commitments on the global stage for investments that would help developing nations build resilience to these extremes and improve food security and self-reliance through small holder agriculture. These commitments would be less than what we now pay in wasteful farm subsidies and tax breaks for oil refiners to blend ethanol – spending that contributes little or nothing to US agricultural resiliency. And they will create powerful savings in the level of food aid that is needed and will help prevent the mounting national security costs that humanitarian crises create.

Whether in the US, Africa, or in any agricultural region, farmers will face uncertainty. The future will certainly hold greater risks as climate change increases, markets become more volatile, and resources more constrained. Planning for that future and investing in resiliency means a more secure world and a place where hope for rain is not a matter of life or death.

Note: Oxfam aims to reach 3 million people with a variety of support, including food aid, clean water, and veterinary care for animals. We are drilling and repairing wells and distributing fuel vouchers to ensure that pumps on the wells can keep operating—even if people have no money. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can support our efforts.

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