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The relationship between drought and famine

Some of the complex relationships between the causes of food shortage are best appreciated in the locations with prolonged drought.

They demonstrate that food shortage is not inevitable in regions that experience even major production shortfalls. There is much to be learned from cases where drought and other natural disasters did not end in famine, and particularly from developing countries that have succeeded in avoiding famine during lengthy drought.

The 1991/92 drought in Southern Africa, referred to as the "apocalypse drought" because of the magnitude of the problem, provides an unusually dramatic example of a large-scale natural disaster that resulted in very few deaths. Rains failed (or were late) across a wide region in 1991/92; the worst rainfall levels in over a century followed generally below-average rains across Southern Africa in 1989/90 and 1990/91. Grain yields in the ten states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were 56 per cent of normal4 (Green 1993). Regional stockpiles were woefully inadequate to cope with the shortage. The drought placed 17-20 million people at risk of starvation. Yet there were no famine-related deaths reported, except in Mozambique where there was an ongoing civil war (Callihan et al. 1994).5

Famine preparedness and prompt response on the part of governments in the region to warning signs of famine are an important part of this success story. Even though regional stockpiles controlled by the SADC were insufficient to deal with the magnitude of the problem, the reserves were released onto the market early in the emergency, before food aid from other areas had arrived (Field 1995). Other interventions taken by governments in the region were far from novel but were implemented much earlier than similar strategies typically have been. Food imports and food aid, initiation or expansion of public works, and loans to agriculturists all addressed issues of supply and demand - rather than simply relief - early in the crisis (Field 1995). The government of Zimbabwe also pledged to purchase large quantities of grain before any donor aid had been committed; this proved to be a lifesaving factor (Callihan et al. 1994).

Donors can be slow. Drought is nothing new in Southern Africa. Reports of low rainfall early in the 1991/92 growing season did not raise much alarm. There was some hope that later rains would salvage some reasonable crop yields, and there was little external donor perception of an emergency, despite a fairly well developed famine early warning system. Advances in early warning technology are of little use unless the warning signals are heeded (Buchanan-Smith et al. 1994). Before any external needs-assessment teams had arrived in the region, most of the SADC National Early Warning Units had already calculated initial food needs (Callihan et al. 1994). Nevertheless, it was 4-6 months before any donor aid reached Southern Africa in 1992. Relief food would have been even slower to arrive had it not been distributed through the SADC, which collected food in distribution centres even though it had not yet been determined where it ultimately was going (Callihan et al. 1994). Good rail, road, and communications infrastructure within the SADC facilitated delivery of food from the distribution centres.

Advance procuring of grain through market channels not only helped to provide food before aid arrived but also helped to avoid the precipitous price drops often associated with sudden arrival of vast quantities of food into drought-stricken regions. Grain prices thus remained relatively stable, protecting incomes of local farmers. Food also reached needy populations before they found it necessary to leave their homes. This greatly facilitated later rehabilitation efforts, since social and production systems were not disrupted. The advance commitment on the part of Southern African governments to import grain also helped prevent prices from being driven up by speculation, as has happened in other situations where crop failure has been accompanied by insufficient confidence in the ability of the government to import food (Ravallion 1987).

In addition, most food-distribution programmes were implemented through market channels, and rural works projects prevented collapse of rural markets during the crisis (Teklu 1994). Botswana did very well with a cash-for-work relief programme that was targeted to the poor by holding wages slightly below market rates (Callihan et al. 1994). The cash-for-work programmes were part of Botswana's Inter-Ministerial Drought Committee's ongoing relief activities (Quinn et al. 1988). Botswana has already done what the SADC is encouraging all of its member nations to do: it has built the expectation of drought into its budget, instead of treating it like a shock, and it has such programmes operating and ready to expand in case of drought.

Other countries in the region made use of both food-for-work and cash-for-work programmes Almost all of the targeted food-distribution programmes were implemented through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that had been operating in the affected communities prior to the drought. Resources came not only from the NGOs but also from proceeds from food sold through market channels. Maize subsidies were lifted in Zimbabwe and Zambia during the relief effort, to increase producer incentives at a time when large supplies of foreign maize would otherwise have driven prices down (Callihan et al. 1994). Malawi was the only country that relied on completely free distribution of food as part of its relief effort.

Although we have stressed the factors that prevented food aid from having detrimental effects on the region, the drought would almost certainly have led to famine in the absence of aid. The United States had record amounts of yellow corn on hand at the time that Southern Africa needed it most: about 12 million tons of grain were delivered in 1992 (Callihan et al. 1994). Some of the aid went through the World Food Programme and some of it was distributed through bilateral arrangements. The United States also provided US$112 million in non-food assistance, primarily in support of transportation and logistic coordination, agricultural rehabilitation and agricultural inputs, emergency water supplies, and health activities (Callihan et al. 1994). Importing was also easier during the drought, because the World Bank relaxed target dates for structural reform actions and made credit available.

Fortuitously, the bulk of grain available during the 1991/92 emergency in Southern Africa was the region's usual staple grain. Aid was then received without causing either temporary or longer-run shifts in local consumption patterns.

The lack of famine mortality, the lack of widespread social disruption, familiar relief foods, and distribution of food through market channels all made it easier for Southern Africa to recover from the disastrous agricultural conditions in 1991/92. Good weather in the following crop year (1992/93) was also critical, since it is unlikely that such a massive relief effort could have been sustained over time.

Other actions taken in response to the 1991/92 emergency made return to normal conditions quickly more plausible. The Sorghum and Millet Improvement Program of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Matopos, Zimbabwe, provided (with funds from USAID) improved and tested varieties of drought-resistant small grains that matured earlier than the traditional varieties. These were approved for use in all of the SADC countries except Malawi - but even Malawi had a record agricultural harvest in 1993, in part due to improved maize seed that was distributed by an NGO (Callihan et al. 1994). Programmes had also expanded within the SADC to preserve cattle during times of drought, in order to help protect future livelihoods. These types of interventions were possible only because people in the region were not pushed into famine conditions under which they would have chosen short-run survival strategies over long-run subsistence strategies (Field 1995).

The experience of Southern Africa during the 1991/92 drought is not a complete success story. Mozambique fared less well than other Southern African countries, in part because donors were reluctant to send food aid that could be stolen by the Mozambican armed forces and not reach displaced people (Ayisi 1992). Production also did not rebound with the good rains in 1992/93 to the same extent as it did in neighbouring nations, largely owing to the ongoing civil war. Another, less severe, drought afflicted the region in 1994/95, and farmers who might otherwise have been able to cope were pushed into bankruptcy, since they were already in debt from the 1991/92 drought. Nevertheless, the experience during the worst drought in over a century clearly shows that drought does not have to lead to famine. The physical and biological causes of production shortfalls are in no way the sole determinants of food shortage. They must always be viewed against an institutional background dedicated to preventing and alleviating shortage.

Ecological and political aspects of food shortage in the 1990s

In evaluating the causes of food shortage, politics has been implicated more than the weather. This is because politicians shape the environment of response to ecological conditions. They also shape the trade-and-aid policies that determine whether households, regions, and countries produce enough food to provision themselves or have affordable terms for import and purchase. National politicians and policies also determine the extent to which regions and localities can retain or develop food self-reliance. Throughout much of the developing world, small farmers have capacities to improve production but lack certain access to land, moisture, seeds, and markets to make optimal use of that potential. They also lack access to basic services, such as health and education, that could improve their lives and prevent food shortage.

Since the 1990s, the international (UN) community has sponsored a number of century-end summit meetings to take stock of current resources and to plan for the future: these were the (UNICEF) World Summit for Children (1990), UNICEF-WHO Conference on Ending Hidden Hunger (1991), International Conference on Nutrition (ICN, 1992), UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, 1992), World Conference on Human Rights (1993), International Conference on Population and Development (1994), World Summit on Social Development (1994), Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), and World Food Summit (WFS, 1996). Almost all addressed two principal dimensions of food shortage and its prevention - the need for better mapping of hunger vulnerability, and the need for more stable political environments for food security. Although especially UNCED, the ICN, and the WFS addressed a plethora of additional technical, economic, social, and cultural issues surrounding food security now and into the twenty-first century, these two dimensions are probably the most significant for addressing local to global food-shortage problems. Implementation of the first is likely to be assisted by the momentum of political will generated by the various summits; implementation of the second is unlikely to be affected by international proclamations. In philosophical or humanitarian terms, few disagree that adequate food is a human right. But most continue to disagree over how to achieve universal food security in a world context divided by socio-economic inequalities, ethnic differences, and narrower country-level political interests. Biotechnological initiative that may break the "yield barrier," and adaptive research and extension to narrow the "yield gap" in basic foods, may help production keep up with population growth and prevent food shortage. But achieving food security for households and individuals remains a greater challenge.


1. There have been declines in carry-over stocks since 1993, but they are still above the level that the FAO considers necessary to maintain food security. Furthermore, all of the decline in stocks has occurred in developed countries as a part of pricing policy (Uvin 1996).

2. Higher fat consumption, accompanying improvements in household incomes, and access to food may mask the deteriorating nutritional status of poorer households, as both extremes are averaged in country-level consumption figures.

3. Marketing boards can have positive effects on producer prices when they act as producer cartels, but more often they act as monopsonies depressing prices (Krishna and Thursby 1992). Governments, especially in Africa, have widely used marketing boards to generate development funds.

4. They were 35 per cent of normal if Angola and Tanzania were excluded (Green 1993).

5. Undoubtedly, famine mortality would have been even higher in Mozambique if there were not a tentative peace during the drought which allowed relief shipments to reach the most affected (Callihan et al. 1994; Green 1993).

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