Warning that famine in Somalia is likely to get worse before it gets better, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday pledged an additional $17 million in U.S. aid to East African countries racked by the worst drought in 60 years.

The money comes on the heels of a $105 million relief package President Obama approved this week, bringing the level of U.S. assistance to the Horn of Africa to $508 million.

But, Clinton warned, the immediate needs of those in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, part of South Sudan and Somalia must also be met with long-term measures aimed at preventing future catastrophes. Calling the famine "the most severe humanitarian emergency in the world today and the worst that East Africa has seen in several decades," she said the suffering of millions of people -- particularly in Somalia -- is as much man-made as brought about by nature.

"Though food shortages may be triggered by drought, they are not caused by drought, but rather by weak or nonexistent agricultural systems that fail to produce enough food or market opportunities in good times and break down completely in the bad times," Clinton said in a speech at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

"In other words, a hunger crisis is not solely an act of God. It is a complex problem of infrastructure, governance, markets, education," she said. "These are things we can shape and strengthen. So this means that this is a problem that we can solve if we have the will."

Advocating an end to trade barriers, improvement in credit and land-use policies and new technologies to bolster resilience to drought, Clinton also called on the eight leading industrialized countries to make good on a 2009 promise of $20 billion for agricultural development.

Clinton's speech comes as U.N. agencies and international aid groups step up calls for emergency assistance funding to the more than 12.4 million people affected by the drought. Yesterday, U.N. humanitarian aid chief Catherine Bragg told the Security Council the body was more than $560 million short on funding for aid for Somalia alone.

More than $1B short of adequate aid
Regionwide, the United Nations has said almost $2.5 billion is needed to cope with the crisis. So far, it has received about 48 percent of that.

"Donors have committed more than a billion dollars to the response so far and continue to pledge more. We are very grateful, especially in these difficult economic times. But the magnitude of human suffering in Somalia today demands more," Bragg told Security Council members. "Despite the difficulty of operating in one of the most conflict-riven countries in the world, we cannot let people down."

This week, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned that famine had spread to three new areas of southern Somalia and could engulf the entire southern part of the country. The agency said famine is expected to spread across the entire region in the coming four to six weeks and could even persist through the end of the year.

Clinton called Somalia the "epicenter" of the crisis. While drought has struck throughout East Africa, U.N. officials and aid workers say the situation in Somalia -- where more than 3 million people are in need of aid and refugees are flooding neighboring Kenya -- is made more dire by internal conflict. The militant rebel group al-Shabab has violently prevented many aid workers from reaching starving communities.

Meanwhile, countries like Kenya and Ethiopia where the United States and aid groups have worked with governments to improve irrigation and other measures aimed at boosting food security are faring far better in the crisis. Clinton noted that in 2002-2003, more than 13 million people faced starvation in Ethiopia. Today, fewer than 5 million do -- a number she noted still is too large but is an "astonishing improvement" that shows investments in food security can pay off.

Shannon Scribner, who heads Oxfam's humanitarian efforts, said her organization also is seeing similar evidence in Ethiopia borne out from grain banks, small-scale irrigation projects and restocking programs.

An Oxfam report says a cash-for-food program has helped communities in Ethiopia develop for grasses more than 2,000 hectares of previously degraded land. More than 15,000 pastoralist households are, according to Oxfam, still benefiting during the current drought from having preserved hay, now used for feeding dairy cows in a "cut and carry" management system.

Meanwhile, the construction of an irrigation system in Ethiopia's Liban district to enable farmers to water year-round has enabled local communities to survive the current drought without food aid.

Climate scientists gave first warning a year ago
"We can look at Ethiopia and we can see the difference in terms of the number of people affected," Scribner said. Of the famine in Somalia, she said, "Even though it's a natural disaster, it's also a man-made disaster."

The absence of a government in Somalia for more than 20 years, no focused way to address widespread food insecurity, and the worst dry seasons in 60 years have, she said, created a "perfect storm" making response measures even more difficult.

Yet the drought and attendant food crisis were not a surprise to the U.S. government or the United Nations.

John Scicchitano, program manager for the U.S. Agency for International Development's Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET), said the system put out its first alert on the worsening food security conditions in August 2010. Scicchitano described the warning as a scientific product based on work climate scientists did on the ocean-atmospheric phenomenon known as La Niña, finding that it would affect rainfall most severely in the Horn of Africa.

After that warning, he said, USAID began to "pre-position" food in the region so resources could be drawn upon more quickly if a crisis erupted. FEWS NET, he said, was created after the famine that spread through West Africa to Ethiopia in 1984 with the aim of helping the U.S. government stay prepared for just such a crisis. In this case, he said, the planning system worked well, and U.S. and U.N. agencies acted quickly. But he said, the magnitude of the crisis was overwhelming.

"As the crisis was brewing in the Horn ... the pre-positioning allowed USAID to get the process started," Scicchitano said. "I don't think it caught people by surprise. I think the scale got so large that it outstripped the international resources to address it."

Shenggen Fan, director-general of IFPRI, said yesterday that the early warning systems that predicted the food emergencies were not matched by early action. He called for strategic international plans that trigger specific actions after alerts.

Not hopeless, but 'difficult'
Scribner agreed. While the United States and many in the international community acted quickly, she said, the missing piece is global coordination. "We don't have the big red horn that someone picks up and says, 'OK, we need to be acting now,'" she said.

Activists also said the East Africa crisis -- and the comparatively better situation in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia -- underscores the importance of disaster prevention and climate change adaptation dollars. Programs like Food for Peace, which Clinton touted yesterday and which allowed Scicchitano to pre-position food stocks, face cuts in the 2012 federal budget. So do USAID dollars that go toward building resiliency to weather-related disasters in vulnerable countries.

A spokesman for Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), who leads the House Appropriations subcommittee over foreign aid that recommended an 18 percent cut to USAID's budget, did not return a request for comment yesterday.

Meanwhile, development organizations acknowledge that the two-prong approach that Clinton outlined -- stepping up efforts to provide emergency relief while working simultaneously to strengthen systems and prevent future food emergencies -- might not be possible everywhere.

"The two-prong approach is really just one prong unless you can deal with long-term issues," said Jake Grover with the Center for Global Development. "It comes down to, you can do these things in Ethiopia and you can do these things in Kenya because you know they have relatively stable governments that are willing to work with [agencies] and care about their people. But when it comes to Somalia ... I don't want to say it's hopeless, but it's difficult."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500