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Famine Imperils The Lives Of Millions In West Africa—
For The Abolition Of Class Society

By Javier Sethness

24 June, 2010

“ There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no shall starve any longer” [1].

The development NGOs Oxfam and Save the Children reported on Monday 21 June that some 10 million people face starvation this summer in the countries of Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, all of which lie on the semi-arid Sahel belt south of the Sahara [2] . Nearly 400,000 children are said to be at risk of dying in the coming months for lack of food [3] . The present situation seems to find its basis in the severe drought conditions, driven by another year of failed rains, that currently grip the Sahel. Worst-affected seem to be the people of Niger, some seven million of whom face what Oxfam refers to as “food insecurity,” with 3 million being “severely food insecure” [4]. Oxfam says that this year's harvest in Niger amounts to three-quarters of that of last year, while in Niger's Diffa and Tillabery regions, no harvest was had at all [5] . Cereal production has declined by 34 percent this year in Chad relative to that which was achieved in 2008, while nearly a third of cattle—a traditional means of storing capital—have perished this year in western and central Chad [6]; the lives of 2 million in the country are said to be at risk [7] . Responding to dwindling supply, food prices across the region have reportedly soared, in some places at least 30 percent [8] . To provide for food, many in the region have resorted to selling their cattle and other livestock, despite the abnormally low prices being fetched for such, given that so many are doing the same. The next harvest is not expected until September [9] .

Caroline Gluck, spokesperson for Oxfam in Niger, has likened the present crisis to that faced in Ethiopia in 1984-1985, when the agricultural policies of the putatively Marxist regime directed by Haile Mengistu Mariam—helped along by failed rains that may have at least in part resulted from the mass-emission of rain-inhibiting pollutants by industrialized Western societies [10]—led to the death of over a million Ethiopians. Those interviewed by the BBC have claimed the present situation to be far worse than that experienced during the 2005 food crisis suffered in the region, during which the lives of 3.6 million were estimated by the UN Children's Fund to be threatened in Niger alone [11] . Referring to the specter of mass-starvation to which millions of West Africans have presently been subject, Brian O'Neill, regional director of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Organisation, warned of a “strong risk” of famine in the region, while UN representative Mariam Khardiata Lo Ndiaye has claimed that “the magnitude of this crisis has not been seen before” [12].

Across much of the Sahel, the failure of rains has caused the so-called lean season—which Reuters reporters John and Fominyen define as “the annual battle to survive from the end of one year's food stocks to the start of a new harvest,” which was “[f]or millennia” the “curse of most of humanity,” now “largely the reserve of millions of Africans” [13]—to begin this year three months earlier than usual, in February rather than May [14] . It seems, then, that this “hunger gap” is unprecedented.

Few if any reports to date have linked the emerging famine conditions in West Africa with climate change. It should not, however, be taken as surprising that 2005 and 2010—the former year being that of the second-highest average global temperatures recorded before 2010, with the latter threatening to be the hottest year ever recorded [15]—have seen famine conditions that jeopardize the lives of millions. The primary effect of climate change on human populations—the “ most savage impact on humanity” it will likely have “in the near future,” as Oxfam's writers put it [16] —is a dramatic rise in hunger and starvation rates which result from the disrupted rainfall patterns, declining agricultural productivity, and markedly increased water scarcity that accompany increased average global temperatures. Given the present crisis in West Africa, it seems that the report Mark Lynas cites which asserts that three-quarters of the population of Mali would starve in a world experiencing a 2°C increase in average global temperatures beyond those that prevailed in pre-industrial times [17] is overly optimistic, given that the 0.8° C that has been achieved to date has subjected nearly half of Niger's population to starvation. Horribly enough, the mass-suffering presently experienced in the region likely previews the effects climate change could have in much of Africa and the world, as famines kill millions and entire latitudinal belts simply become uninhabitable to human life. That 10 million lives are presently in question belies the hope seemingly held by many that climate change can be taken as a far-off threat that could in some way be averted; generally conceived, “hope,” then, “has grown very poor” [18].

Ibrahima Fall, Save the Children's Country Director in Niger, declared in recent days that “[t]he extent” of the present crisis “is being grossly underestimated” [19]; Oxfam has found the international community's “overall response” to the specter of mass-starvation in the Sahel “woefully inadequate” [20]. Constituted power's failure here certainly is fundamental, however ‘normal' and myriad such failures are in the present system. But it must be said that no social system that allows for humans to die for lack of access to adequate nutrition can be considered legitimate; one that subjects 10 million to the threat of such, and a billion others to chronic malnutrition [21] , can never be justified. It must, rather, surely be abolished.


Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He blogs on climate change and other issues at http://intlibecosoc.wordpress.com


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 156 (trans. modified)

[2] “Ten million in West Africa face severe hunger as harvests fail and drought deepens, warns Oxfam,” ReliefWeb, 21 June 2010

[3] “Food crisis emergency in Niger,” ReliefWeb, 21 June 2010

[4] Oxfam, op. cit.

[5] Barry Mason, “Warning of famine in West Africa,” World Socialist Web Site , 11 June 2010

[6] “People of Niger bear the brunt of food crisis,” ReliefWeb , 11 June 2010

[7] Oxfam, op. cit.

[8] Henry Foy, “Millions face starvation in West Africa, aid agencies warn,” The Guardian , 21 June 2010;

[9] “Niger's silent crisis,” BBC News Online , 21 June 2010

[10] Joseph B. Verrengia, “1970-85 Famine Blamed on Pollution,” Commondreams , 21 July 2002

[11] BBC News Online , op. cit. ; Mark John and George Fominyen, “World wakes to African hunger—late again?” Reuters, 18 June 2010

[12] Mason, op. cit. ; BBC News Online , op. cit.

[13] Op. cit.

[14] Mike Pflanz, “Millions of West Africans need urgent food aid after failed harvests,” The Telegraph, 21 June 2010

[15] John Vidal, “2010 could be among warmest years recorded by man [sic],” The Guardian , 2 June 2010

[16] “Suffering the Science: Climate Change, people, and poverty,” 9 July 2009

[17] Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)

[18] Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992 [1971]), p. 163

[19] Op. cit.

[20] Op. cit.

[21] Jerry White, “UN reports 1 billion of the world's people going hungry,” World Socialist Web Site , 19 September 2009