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East Africa

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Famine Is Back

For the first time in six years, there is famine in the world: a real, United Nations-declared famine, with more than 30 percent of the affected population suffering acute malnutrition and more than a thousand people dying of hunger each day. And there are three more countries where famine may be declared any day now.

As you would expect, all four current and impending famines are in war zones. As you might not expect, one of the afflicted countries is not in Africa. It is war-torn Yemen, the poorest Arab country, whose 22 million people depended on imports for 90 percent of their food. With most of Yemen in rebel hands and daily air raids, the food is no longer making it in.

But the other three places are indeed African: South Sudan, Somalia and north-eastern Nigeria. The official famine is in South Sudan, where, after three years of brutal civil war, 40 percent of the population, some 5 million people, are starting to starve.

As usual, there are other contributing factors. There has been a months-long drought in much of East Africa, and the worst-hit provinces of South Sudan tend to support the rebels and may therefore be suffering from an undeclared government food blockade. But it’s almost always Africa. Why?

There are poor people elsewhere, but apart from North Korea in 1996, every famine of the past 40 years has been in Africa. It’s usually linked to armed conflict, of course, and most of the world’s wars are in Africa, but that just pushes the argument back one step.

Why is Africa, a continent with only one-seventh of the world’s population, home to the great majority of its wars? Only the Arab world, a much smaller region, even begins to compete, and its wars, bad as they are, almost never cause famines. Africa is a global outlier, and there must be some common factor beyond mere politics that makes it the global capital
for wars and famines.

The big thing that distinguishes Africa from the rest of the planet (except, once again, the Arab world) is a rapidly growing population: the average fertility rate across the African continent is 4.6 children per woman.

That was about the average fertility rate of the whole human race in 1960, when the entire world’s population was exploding. But the global fertility rate has halved since then, while Africa’s has stayed much the same. If it remained at this level for the rest of the century, today’s one billion Africans would become seven billion, and half the human race would be African in 2100.

In fact the fertility rate is forecast to fall gradually in most African countries, although some countries – Niger, Mali and Uganda, for example – will continue to have higher birth rates. But the fertility rate is falling very slowly: the forecast is that by 2045 the average African woman will be having only three children – but anything above 2.2 children per woman means the population is still growing.

The forecast of the United Nations Population Division is that Africa’s population will almost quadruple by the end of the century, while most other countries stand still or even fall in population. That means there will be 3.6 billion Africans by 2100 – a third of the human race. It also means that war and famine may be their constant companions.

It’s not that Africa has already outgrown its food supply. There is probably enough good land in Africa to feed twice the present population (though not four times as many people). Global warming is likely to damage the productivity of African agriculture quite badly in the long run, but that’s not happening yet. So why is there a famine problem now?

It’s because for the past half-century Africa’s population has been growing as fast or faster than its economies. Most Africans therefore stay poor, and poor people, especially the rural poor, tend to have higher birth rates. And since they cannot afford to invest much in their farms, in their children’s education, or in anything else, the problems and the conflicts deepen and fester.

It’s almost forgotten now, but when most African countries got their independence from the European empires in the 1960s their citizens were significantly better off than those of most Asian countries. African countries had better communications; even their diets were better.

But Asia’s annual population growth rate was only two percent then and is down to one percent now, while Africa’s population growth rate was 2.2 percent then and is 2.5 percent now. So per capita incomes in Asia are now many times higher than in Africa.

Africa is having famines long before there is an actual shortage of food in the continent. It’s having wars that are essentially over the division of the spoils (like South Sudan) in economies where there is simply not enough wealth to go around. Unless it can somehow get its population growth under control, it will just go on getting worse.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 13 and 14. (“As usual…why?”; and “It’s…Africa”)

The Nile: Water War?

24 May 2010

The Nile: Water War?

By Gwynne Dyer

After he signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat said: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” Well, the world kept turning, and now a potential war over water is creeping onto Egypt’s agenda.

Egypt is the economic and cultural superpower of the Arab world: its 78 million people account for almost a third of the world’s Arabic-speaking population. But 99 percent of it is open desert, and if it were not for the Nile river running through that desert, Egypt’s population would not be any bigger than Libya’s (5 million). So Cairo takes a dim view of anything that might diminish the flow of that river.

Back in 1929, when the British empire controlled Egypt, Sudan, and most of the countries further upstream in East Africa, it sponsored an agreement giving Cairo the right to veto any developments upstream that would decrease the amount of water in Nile. The rationale at the time was that the upstream countries had ample rainfall, whereas Egypt and Sudan (at the time ruled as one country) depended totally on the Nile’s waters.

Thirty years later, in 1959, when Egypt and Sudan were already independent but all of the upstream states except Ethiopia were still colonies, Egypt and Sudan signed another agreement that left only 10 percent of the Nile’s water to the seven upstream countries, while giving Egypt almost 80 percent and Sudan the rest. The argument was still the same: the countries further upstream had rainfall, while it hardly ever rains in Egypt or Sudan.

Now the upstream countries that got almost no water in that deal are rejecting it. Thirteen years ago, they persuaded Egypt and Sudan to start talks on the river, but they have now concluded that the two Arab countries really only joined the talks to prevent any new deal. So they are now going ahead without them.

Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia signed an agreement on 14 May to seek more water from the Nile. Kenya signed last week, and the Congo and Burundi are expected to do so soon. Kenya’s minister of water resources, Charity Ngilu, described the 1929 treaty as “obsolete and timeworn”, and said that Egypt and Sudan had “no choice” but to negotiate a reallocation of the Nile’s waters.

The Egyptian government replied that the new agreement “is in no way binding on Egypt from a legal perspective,” and that “Egypt will not join or sign any agreement that affects its share.” It’s an understandable perspective, since Cairo must figure out how to feed not 78 but 95 million Egyptians in only fifteen years’ time.

But it is a perspective that gets little sympathy in Addis Ababa, which must feed 91 million Ethiopians now but will have to find food for 140 million fifteen years from now. All the countries in East Africa and the Horn of Africa have far higher population growth rates than Egypt, and they are getting worried about how to feed their people. So they want to use some of the Nile’s water for irrigation projects for their own.
Ethiopia, whose rivers provides 85 percent of the water that eventually reaches Egypt, is especially militant. As Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi said earlier this year: “The current regime cannot be sustained. It’s being sustained because of the diplomatic clout of Egypt. There will come a time when the people of East Africa and Ethiopia will become too desperate to care about these diplomatic niceties. Then, they are going to act.”

Predictions of “water wars” are commonplace, and yet they hardly ever happen: it’s almost always cheaper to cut a deal and share the water. But the Nile basin contains 400 million people today, and Egypt and Sudan, with only 120 million people, are using almost all of its water.

In fifteen years’ time there will be almost 800 million people in the Nile basin, and only 150 million of them will be Egyptians and Sudanese. It is very hard to believe that the latter two countries will still be able to keep 90 percent of the river’s water for their own use. On the other hand, how do they survive without it?

In the past, Egypt has safeguarded its share by threats of military action. Since it was in an entirely different military league from the countries to the south, those threats had some substance. But now the military disparities are less impressive, and Egypt’s options have narrowed dramatically.

As Meles Zenawi said recently: “I think it is an open secret that the Egyptians have troops that are specialised in jungle warfare. Egypt is not known for its jungles. So if these troops are trained in jungle warfare, they are probably trained to fight in the jungles of the East African countries.”

“From time to time Egyptian presidents have threatened countries with military action if they move. While I cannot completely discount the sabre-rattling, I do not think it is a feasible option. If Egypt were to plan to stop Ethiopia from utilising the Nile waters it would have to occupy Ethiopia, and no country on earth has done that in the past.”
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“Egypt…river”; and “Predictions…water”)