It is sixteen months since the world woke up to the horror of a food crisis that threatened hundreds of thousands of lives in the Horn of Africa. Throughout the latter half of 2011, the crisis featured prominently in media headlines and generated a multi-billion dollar humanitarian response.
Since then new crises – West Africa, Syria and Yemen to name a few – have dominated the headlines, and for aid agencies and donors with limited resources, the Horn of Africa has lost its status as a high priority emergency. Today many see the crisis as passed; and the situation as back to business as usual.
This is partially true. Overall, the situation is improved compared to 2011, when the crisis was at its peak. Rainfall in most areas has been better than last year, the condition of pastures has in many areas improved as has the availability of water and the condition of livestock, and child malnutrition has dropped. In Somalia, the population in need of humanitarian assistance has fallen by 17 per cent.
It's easy to make the situation sound positive when compared to a crisis in which, in the worst affected areas, a quarter of a million people were at risk of starvation and nearly a third of all children were acutely malnourished. But what does 'business as usual' mean in Somalia now that media interest has waned in the crisis?
The population in need of humanitarian assistance in Somalia, at just over two million people, is the largest in the world. Of this group, more than 90 per cent are in 'crisis'. Child malnutrition has dropped, but still more than 200,000 children throughout the country, nearly one in six, are acutely malnourished.
One in 25 children are 'severely acutely malnourished', meaning at risk of death from starvation. In the more vulnerable parts of Somalia, the poorest households who depend on crops for food and income have cereal stocks that will last just one or two months. The next harvest isn't until January, and so once these stocks are exhausted, these families will be entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. Current predictions are that more than two million Somalis will remain in 'crisis' and 'emergency' at least until the end of this year.
In the Horn of Africa in 2011, the world waited for famine to be declared before launching a response sufficient to save lives. It's now been unanimously acknowledged that we should have provided the support that was needed far in advance to enable the most vulnerable communities to prepare for and live through the crisis. The 'lessons' have been acknowledged but whether they have really been learned remains to be seen.
Currently the international community is appealing for $1.5bn to meet humanitarian needs in Somalia, but despite all the discussion regarding how much more could have been done to mitigate last year's crisis, just over half of this has been raised. This funding shortfall could have fatal implications for vulnerable Somalis who do not have enough food to see them through to the end of the year. The priority now is that funding be scaled up to enable Somalis to cope through this still enduring crisis.
Ultimately, though, we need to move beyond responding to crises only after they occur, and start recognising and responding to early warnings and acting early enough and in the right way so as to mitigate the impact of future crises.
There's growing international momentum around this issue, and a growing sense of urgency – shared by NGOs, UN agencies and donors alike – about the need to get it right.
This was reflected in a conference held recently in Canberra ('A Stitch in Time: Acting Early to Save Lives'), at which Australian and international experts gathered to consider how the Australian humanitarian community and the nation's international development agency, AusAID, could do better to mitigate the effects of food crises.
The conference discussion centred around the acknowledgement that the status quo is unacceptable and that fundamental change to the relief and development sectors is required.
This is reflected to some extent in Australia's humanitarian aid policy, which recognises that slow onset disasters 'can be predicted and their impact mitigated for in advance', and commits to 'funding slow on-set crises early'. But while the policy recognition is there, there's currently no funding mechanism within the Australian aid architecture that's purpose-built to facilitate this sort of early response to slow-onset crises.
'Business as usual' for Somalis, if this means one in six children acutely malnourished, is far from what any of us in Australia would regard as acceptable.
Failure to act now, by ensuring an appropriate humanitarian response as well as by ensuring that our system is fit for purpose to mitigate the effects of future crises, could mean thousands or even tens of thousands of lives lost.