08/08/2011 12:05 EDT | Updated 10/07/2011 05:12 EDT

Famine in Africa: What Is the Long-Term Solution?

Western intervention and generosity are necessary and life-saving, but unless new practices that promote new methods of conservation can be ushered in, we'll be hearing of regional famines for years to come.


In Washington D.C. for a meeting with senators and members of Congress for a discussion on Sudan, I was then asked by an officer from the Pentagon if I'd like to grab some lunch. We got a table at a restaurant near the Supreme Court and furthered the discussion on the future for Africa. He was high up in the Defense echelons and knew his stuff. He then told me that one of the largest suppliers of funding to the humanitarian USAID was in fact the Defense department itself.

"What?" I exclaimed. "How can that be?"

It was a revelation of sorts. He spoke of how for decades the Pentagon had tried to figure out where the next conflicts would pop up around the world and that they were more often wrong than right. "That's when we turned to climate science," he stated, "and from that point on it was far easier to detect where the next regional wars would come from."

In an instant it all made sense. Years before the Darfur conflict emerged, for instance, UN climate scientists had predicted the region would be in conflict because of a lack of resources -- and they were right. The Pentagon had learned that at least with some science behind them they could prepare to defuse situations about to boil over. How? By funding humanitarian and development projects years in advance to relieve the pressure that would normally result in physical conflict over scarce resources.

All this is important because for years environmental scientists and researchers have been alerting the world community to the devastation that would soon befall East Africa unless long-term planning was put in place to avert a crisis. A sure sign few listened is the crisis we are watching on our television screens at present. Tens of thousands of people have died because warnings were ignored.

The major blame for all this falls directly at the feet of local African governments, not so much the West as so many like to presume. Local and national administrations have stood back, watched, or even abetted efforts to dam or curtail the flow of forested rivers into the regions where people need water for their very survival. Efforts exist to plant thousands, even millions of trees, in the region, but as long as African officials condone the cutting down of trees to grow plantations and diverting the rivers and streams to irrigate those plantations, there will never be enough water to save lives.

While political types in Canada and the U.S. continue to yawn over, or even deny, the catastrophic effects of a changing natural order, millions on the ground in Africa live with it as a daily reality. With rains coming later and later in the season each year -- especially in those regions close to the Sahara -- the stark choices they face can lead to life or death.

When the Ethiopian famine hit in the 1980s, international response was overwhelming and inspiring, but there was little follow-up when it was all over. Local African governments went back to their previous practices, and although the threat of famine always hung over the region, they refused to adopt the adaptations necessary to improve life for their people and to rid the region of famine's threat for good. There are many at blame for the present crisis, but chief among them have been local leaders who failed to enact measures required to save their own citizens.

Western intervention and generosity are necessary and life-saving, but unless new practices that promote new methods of conservation can be ushered in, we'll be hearing of regional famines for years to come.

Perhaps the United Nations, along with regional leaders, could host a follow-up conference, say in Nairobi, Kenya, to determine the measures required to bring new hope and life to East Africa itself. It will take Western science and generosity to resource preventive measures, but African leaders in the region must first acknowledge past failure and commit to future promises before famines like the one at present begin to decline. After all, if the Pentagon gets it, the time has come for significant reform.