When Food Is Not Enough to Stop Famine

When children are starving, the most urgent need is to feed them. It seems simple, but is it really?

This is the question humanitarian workers confront on a daily basis at the world's largest refugee complex, in Dadaab, Kenya. The camps here are overflowing now, with more than 400,000 people living in a space designed for 90,000. Every day, 3,000 Somalis are fleeing to Dadaab and other camps in Kenya and Ethiopia to escape the severe drought and famine in their country.

For the most critical cases of malnutrition, the youngest children, the answer is simple. Their tiny stomachs and tiny mouths cannot cope with anything but sugar water or high-calorie pastes like PlumpyNut, a peanut-based paste for treatment of severe malnutrition. But what about everyone else? What about the families who are lucky enough to make it to Dadaab or Dollo Ado camps, to be registered as refugees and to finally receive life-saving food assistance?

These refugees receive food -- cereals, beans, vegetable oil and a corn-soya blend -- that must be cooked in order to be eaten; but, most do not receive fuel to cook this food. Imagine trying to feed your own family a bowl of raw corn meal for breakfast. "Without firewood," a Somali refugee woman in Dadaab told me last year, "100 bags of food is useless."

Thus, after having trekked hundreds of miles across a vast desert for days with no food or water to finally end up in a refugee camp, women's struggles to feed their families are still not over. Once in Dadaab, they must leave the relative safety of the camps to travel for hours back out into the hot desert, searching for the firewood they need to cook food for their famished children. They risk rape, physical assault, dehydration and snake or scorpion bites. Yet they continue to make this journey day after day, week after week, because as another refugee woman I met there noted, "When there's no money and your child is crying of hunger, you have no option but to go into the bush."

Food is the most urgent need today in East Africa; but fuel to cook the food is just as critical.

Although most of the area currently affected by the drought and famine has not been wooded for a long time, this semi-arid land was once able to support the food and cooking fuel needs of the population, because the population was spread out -- a small number of largely nomadic people living across wide swathes of territory. Limited resources were sufficient for a limited population.

Conflict and displacement, however, have had a severe impact on the traditional way of life, and on the availability of food and fuel. Prolonged fighting has greatly curtailed the mobility of nomadic populations and driven more and more people to the region's urban centers and refugee camps. Dadaab is now the third-largest "city" in Kenya -- behind only Nairobi and Mombasa -- with inhabitants living practically on top of each other in a remote and environmentally fragile area. The population density of Dadaab is higher than Bangkok and rivals that of Singapore or Mexico City -- but with almost no infrastructure. There are just not enough resources available to support such a large concentration of people.

Women have had to chop down the few remaining trees, leading to desertification -- with few trees to slow evaporation of groundwater and few roots to stop erosion or help regenerate the fertility of the soil.

Both the immediate and long-term consequences of this process are urgent and life-threatening, and we are seeing both occurring right now: women have to travel further into the desert to find firewood; land that could once produce sorghum and beans now lies dry and barren; entire villages are forced to flee to avoid starvation; economies are collapsing; and displacement is severely straining the resources and capacity of host communities and governments.

Though the need for firewood for cooking is certainly not the only cause of deforestation in the region, it is a major one -- and one for which the humanitarian community thankfully has alternative options at its disposal. We at the Women's Refugee Commission urgently recommend that humanitarian organizations work together with the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments and displaced populations in those countries to:

Provide emergency rations of cooking fuel to ensure that women are not forced to risk their lives, health and safety to collect firewood;

Reduce consumption of firewood: a minimum of 50,000 fuel-efficient stoves are needed for households, and dozens more are needed for institutions like schools, health clinics and feeding centers. When used properly, fuel-efficient stoves can reduce the amount of firewood needed to cook a meal by 50 to 80 percent. These stoves could reduce the number of dangerous trips women must take to find firewood, and slow the pace of deforestation. Distribution of tight-fitting pot lids can further save fuel at very little cost;

Increase the supply of alternative cooking fuel available: even with reduced consumption, firewood is not a sustainable fuel option for the people living in and around Dadaab and other semi-arid areas in east Africa. Thus, the development and use of alternative fuels -- such as mesquite briquettes, biogas, ethanol, solar energy and even propane-is urgently needed to prevent an even more severe human and environmental catastrophe.

Over the long term, the international community will have to address the economic needs of people dependent on the collection and sale of firewood, and we will have to take measures to rehabilitate the environment to reduce food insecurity -- a persistent threat throughout the region.

But right now, we can and must act to ensure that the hungry do not have to choose between eating today or eating tomorrow.