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The world’s next crisis: drought and famine in the Horn of Africa

There are warnings that the humanitarian caseload could exceed the Syrian crisis.

The scale of the drought now gripping the Horn of Africa is only beginning to be grasped.

While the BBC and some other media outlets have given it some coverage, this has only really touched the surface of the problem. Most quote a figure of 10 million Ethiopians requiring food aid. This is the number provided by the Ethiopian government, but looks wide of the mark.

The authoritative Famine Early Warning system has been using a figure of 15 million since early December. The organisation described Ethiopia as “the country with the largest acutely food insecure population in the world”. It concludes that: “Already, significant populations in northern Somali region and southern Afar are in Emergency (IPC Phase 4), meaning that they are unable to access adequate food for survival and face an increased risk of malnutrition and mortality.”

This is just one step away from famine, yet these warnings cover only Ethiopia. There is every indication that the situation in neighbouring Eritrea (as well as tiny Djibouti) is just as severe.   

The difference is this: the Ethiopian authorities have had the courage to call for help. The Eritrean government has not.

All that is definitively known about the Eritrean crisis is that the rains have failed. This map shows the drought extending from northern Ethiopia deep into Eritrea’s highlands and western lowlands.

With large parts of Eritrea’s most productive farms receiving less than 20 per cent of the average rainfall, there is little chance of much of a harvest.

Although this is well understood by aid officials and the UN they are silent about what is unfolding. Maps indicating the needs of the populations are blank north of the Ethiopian border.

There is a good reason for this. The Eritrean government has clamped down on all independent sources of information.

In 2005 the Eritrean government began demanding that taxes be paid on aid imported into the country to help the Eritrean people. Aid agencies objected, and when they refused to pay six Italian agencies were asked to leave. They were followed by Irish Concern, ACCORD and the US-based mercy mission. Today, even the UN has its operations severely curtailed.

Until the Eritrean government admits the scale of the crisis there is little that the international community can do. And since no independent media – national or international – are based inside the country, no one is sounding the alarm.

The British government has come closest to describing the situation. In December development minister Nick Hurd revealed in a written answer that: “Official food security and nutrition data for Eritrea for this year has not yet been released, but the late onset of rains, relatively low volume of rainfall, and significant soil moisture deficits are likely to have had a negative impact on both farming and pastoral communities.”

Why is drought leading to famine?

Even though Ethiopia has called for help, some suggest a crisis is unlikely to be avoided.

The veteran French journalist, Rene Lefort, points out that the port of Djibouti, through which most foreign grain must flow, is unlikely to be able to handle the volumes. “It manages usually around 500,000 tons per month. Can it deal with an additional 2 million tons, and with what kinds of delay?”  

The tragedy is that Ethiopia’s natural gateways to the sea, the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa, have lain idle since the border war between the two countries (1998 – 2000).  The frontier is closed, disrupting ancient trade routes that have served these communities well.

There is another – unspoken – issue: population. 

Ethiopia’s “biblical” famines of 1973 – 74 and 1984 – 85 left hundreds of thousands dead, probably around 200,000 and 400,000 respectively. The first resulted in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie; the second contributed to the end of the Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Since the first of these tragedies, the population of Ethiopia has quadrupled – from around 26 million in 1973 to around 100 million today. Highland farms (tiny patches of land, eroded by decades of intensive agriculture and subdivided down the generations) can barely feed a family in the best of times. Many still use wooden ploughs, pulled by a single donkey or an ox.

Even in normal years some 7 or 8 million Ethiopians require international food aid to survive. This is euphemistically known as the government’s “Productive Safety Net Program”. Every year this programme is underwritten by Ethiopia’s major ally – the United States – at an annual cost of $100m.

This year el-Nino and the drought it has brought has exacerbated the situation. But these droughts are cyclical and it was inevitable that another drought of this magnitude would return to the region. It was only a matter of time.

For Ethiopia, the picture is not entirely negative. The country has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years – in excess of 8 per cent a year for the past decade. The authorities have greater resources to draw upon. And Ethiopia recently signed a border agreement with Kenya that could allow increased freight to be brought in by road.

But no one should underestimate the impact of the drought and the looming threat of famine. There are warnings that the humanitarian caseload could exceed the Syrian crisis. These are desperate times as millions across the Horn of Africa hope for rain and eke out a living until the next harvest arrives.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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