Seasonal food insecurity is normal in many poor households, which suffer a hungry period shortly before the harvest, as food gathered from the previous harvest runs out. This recurrent problem is known as ‘chronic’ food insecurity, as opposed to one-off shortages which are classified as ‘transitory’ food insecurity. When food insecurity is acute and prolonged it can lead to starvation and finally to famine (when there is a significant increase in sickness and death rates resulting from starvation and associated factors). The descent into acute food shortage and thence into famine can take weeks, months or even years.
Except where conflict is a major contributing factor, famine should not be seen as inevitable because of the range of measures available to improve food security and strengthen livelihoods in the long term at all levels. Take, for example, the mitigation strategies used by communities to protect themselves against drought and resulting food insecurity. These can be divided into two main types: agricultural and non-agricultural.
Families only sell their livelihood assets if they are forced to, when other methods such as growing alternative crops or finding alternative employment are insufficient. Sale of assets is a good indicator of how severe the consequences of drought are. Poor families, those with small landholdings and the landless, are the first to resort to such methods. Only when all else has failed will whole families and communities migrate in search of food. The severity of a food crisis can therefore be judged by looking at food and livelihood coping strategies as well as food supplies. Food insecurity is likely to be acute if:
The most effective way to protect communities against food insecurity and famine resulting from drought is to strengthen these mitigation strategies in advance, especially those that enable them to preserve their productive assets, such as animals, seeds and tools. Despite this, many external interventions are in response to drought. Moreover, they often come at a late stage, when communities are in crisis and may already be destitute, having been forced to dispose of productive assets. Typical interventions in such circumstances are to provide food, seeds, fertiliser, animals and agricultural equipment to replace what has been used or sold, and to lend money. Where a crisis has become acute, with widespread starvation and migration, aid agencies’ interventions focus on emergency response, especially feeding and health care. Food-for-work and cash-for-work schemes are also common responses.
The boundary between disaster preparedness and response is blurred in the case of food crises because they can develop over such a long time. Some would argue that an emergency begins when hungry people are forced to dispose of their livelihood assets; others put it at the point where destitute, starving people leave their homes to beg for food, or even where large numbers begin to die of starvation. In this chapter, the emphasis is on longer-term mitigation measures to maintain food production and incomes.