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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 December 2006, 22:36 GMT
Do they care it's Christmas time?
Menghestab Haile
Menghestab Haile

'Tis the season when some concerned present-buyers choose to sponsor goats for families in drought-hit regions. Schemes like this are little more than token gestures, says the World Food Programme's Menghestab Haile; a real gift would be serious political action to help those struggling with climate change.

Malnourished child. Image: AP
We need to help protect people from every single drought or other calamity pushing them into destitution
The growing damage wrought by climate change in sub-Saharan Africa demands more than seasonal good will; it needs true political will, matched by real action, if we are to halt the ever growing problem of world hunger.

Ask Mohamed Abey, a pastoralist leader in the dusty roadside community of Skanska in north-eastern Kenya. The 47-year-old says he owned 400 livestock before the 2005 drought; now he has just 20.

He admits pastoralism is no longer sustainable. While he is grateful for the monthly package of food aid, he urges the world to do more so the 2,000 people in Skanska can get back on their own feet.

Told that a lack of support for restocking or safety net schemes means that food is about all they can currently expect, he predicts: "If there isn't enough rain and we cannot return to pastoralism, we will come up with other options."

He then suggests trying farming, but admits he first needs help with seeds and irrigation.

Mohamed says some of his 14 children have been to school and he cannot see them returning to the pastoralist life. "The only option is to take them to school," he says.

If we cannot help people survive today's extreme weather, there's little point worrying about future climate change

Only too aware that droughts are hitting faster across East Africa and the Horn, pastoralists now know their best insurance is to educate their children so they join the modern economy.

Then when drought returns, pastoralists will not just rely on a fickle international community often prone to distraction by new emergencies.

Stark challenge

Compounded by climate change, the challenge in Africa is greater than ever.

In its annual report on the state of food insecurity, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the number of undernourished people in the world was rising by four million a year.

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The situation is worst in sub-Saharan Africa with some 206 million hungry people, 40 million more than in 1990-1992.

At the height of the regional drought this year, WFP gave food rations to three million people in Kenya alone. Even after the rains, WFP was supplying 2.41 million Kenyans because of the severe impact of drought - then had to ramp up its operation again to meet the needs of 2.7 million when the drought was fast followed by the worst floods in the Horn of Africa in years.

If we cannot help people survive today's extreme weather, there's little point worrying about future climate change.

Regular meals

WFP does indeed invest in the longer-term.

As part of its drought response, 550,000 children still receive meals at schools in the worst drought-hit and now flood-hit areas. Another 1.1 million children receive school meals in Kenya from WFP's regular programme, which has run since 1980 and focuses on arid and semi-arid areas.

Some critics complain it is not right that 70% of global food aid is donated in kind, rather than as cash. They say that when hunger is caused by poverty, cash can be better than food aid.

And they call for less food aid from abroad, so local purchases help support farmers in developing countries.

Man wearing ceremonial robes (Image: BBC)
The pastoralist way of life may no longer be sustainable
Such suggestions are often unqualified, even when there is clear need.

Mohamed's family eats food aid from the WFP. Little else is on offer in just about every community in the 80% of Kenya that is arid or semi-arid, despite development and investment plans and projects dating back to the 1980s.

On the issue of buying locally-produced food, WFP emergency operations often depend on food donations. We can only make local purchases when food is available and at the right price to balance the needs of producers and saving lives without disrupting markets.

In emergencies, local and regional food prices often skyrocket, making purchases uneconomical.

Meeting the needs

Food aid is one of many tools available to fight food insecurity. There is, however, insufficient evidence to conclude that cash transfers outperform food in contributing to food security - except in some particular contexts.

In most cases, it seems that food aid and cash together would provide a powerful response, especially if targeted to women.

WFP, like others, holds that the aid system must support people's livelihoods before and after crises, as well as meet the immediate needs of the hungriest.

This is a major reason why WFP is piloting humanitarian drought insurance in Ethiopia as one of several tools to help people hit by climate change before they have to sell their assets, lose their livelihoods and pull their children out of school.

The initial pilot project consisted of an eight-month insurance policy with AXA Re in Paris taken out by WFP, which would have paid out $7m if rainfall levels had dropped significantly below historical averages, indicating a widespread crop failure.

Boat on the banks of a drought-hit river (Image: AP)

Although rainfall was not below average and no payout resulted, the project represented the first time in history that humanitarian risk was transferred from a developing country to developed countries using such market mechanisms.

Other public-private partnerships are now being built to use creative financial instruments to benefit developing countries where climate change is likely to hit hardest. For instance, microfinance institutions in India, working with a Swiss re-insurer, are assisting farmers in Andhra Pradesh to use "weather hedges" against lower than expected monsoon rains.

People who depend on the land need all our efforts to build livelihoods that are less vulnerable to bad weather.

But it will take some time to increase overall education levels and employment. In the meantime, we need to help protect people from every single drought or other calamity pushing them into destitution.

Mohamed's children eat WFP food to stay alive and because it buys them time.

As with climate change, buying time definitely isn't a solution.

But in both cases, it is much better than doing nothing, in the absence of a massive sustainable drive to tackle the true causes of both climate change and the hunger fast growing across Africa.

Dr Menghestab Haile is a meteorologist responsible for integrating climate and weather analysis into food security monitoring for the UN World Food Programme

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Menghestab Haile? How can we tackle the growing problem of hunger? Are you doing anything for charity this Christmas? Send us your comments with the link below:

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