Thanksgiving: Give Thanks and be Thoughtful

This weekend as we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, it is difficult for those of us in the aid community not to think of the scarcity of food that grips much of the world. With a global recession underway and climate change affecting the way the rain falls and the sun shines, I find it increasingly difficult to sit at my comfy chair, rather than to go where people suffer through poverty and lack of basic services or a functioning government, to bring help -- or hope.

But there is little hope I can bring to a world where tradition often trumps progress, and food scarcity is transcending from a scientific term to a tragic reality for more and more people. Today as water tables fall, soils erode and temperatures rise, world grain production has fallen short of consumption, and global grain prices have risen ever higher.

Governments of poorer nations, which often buy basic food supplies to subsidize their people's nutrition, are paying record prices for food they practically give away as a government subsidy. The result is that they are willing to buy less and less of it, allowing their populations to suffer greater food shortages and more malnutrition. Unfortunately, shortages often affect children, female children, and women in impoverished countries the most.

In Pakistan, after the recent floods, many families lost precious farm land and livestock, both of which are essential to their food security. The Punjab province, Pakistan's most fertile area, was almost entirely submerged by the end of the downpour, and nearly 600,000 tons of wheat were destroyed. According to the World Food Program, at least 2 million hectares of crops were ruined as a result of the floods, and nearly 2 million tons of rice vanished in the flood waters. The result is that more than 14 million people were adversely affected by the destruction around them, including loss of family, loves ones, an emotional and physical support structure, a safe dwelling -- and a stable food and income source for years to come.

Against this backdrop of floods is the reality that global water supplies are falling. Despite the massive rains and storms that befall some of the world's biggest grain producers, including India, China and the US, they are not enough to recharge wells that are being irrigated by increasing numbers of people on a planet that recently reached 7 billion in population. As water levels drop, wells go dry, farmers can harvest less land and, as is seen in China, the world's largest producer of wheat, the yield is shrinking -- 7% just within the last decade.

In the Horn of Africa, where a modern-day famine is unfolding before our 21st century eyes, nearly 1 million people are at risk of starvation in the next few months. That is, by the time our holiday season is over, they will have perished. These statistics include women and children, as well as the elderly and men. In Somalia, famine has now spread to six regions, the 6th of which is one of the nation's most productive areas. An entire people have succumb to the scarcity of food at dire levels where mothers can't feed their children, nor can they consume enough to make milk for their infants. Nearly 60% of children under the age of 5 are now acutely malnourished, while infant mortality in famine areas has risen beyond the regional average. Fully 4 million people in the Horn of Africa now need essential food aid. The famine is likely to become more widespread by the end of the year and looks poised to extend to Northern Kenya, Southern Ethiopia and Djibouti.

According to CARE, an aid agency steeped in the work of saving lives in the Horn of Africa, the crisis is "a combined result of two consecutive years of drought, increasing food prices, underdevelopment, and -- especially in Somalia --- poor governance, conflict, insecurity and limited humanitarian access." In Pakistan, the Monsoon rains are a force of nature. But there again, bad governance, a tradition of keeping women out of the workforce for lesser economic empowerment and consequently a farming dependent economy, have all attributed to the stark aftermath of floods that lay ruin to farm-land and left few options for a new livelihood.

To me, nothing is more tragic than starving children and helpless mothers. With uncontrolled births and multiple children to care for and feed, mothers in impoverished corners of the world suffer the worst of human fates -- the inability to aid their children when they are in need. For that, they rely on aid groups and the money those agencies collect form folks who know, or should know, how fortunate they are. Although in the developed world people are struggling through strained and collapsing economies, the reality -- when measured on a global perspective -- is that we still fare better than most. For that, we should be fundamentally thankful.