We have food emergency, not famine

Tuesday February 7 2017

A resident of Barwessa in Baringo North tries to lift an emaciated cow in the area on January 8, 2017. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A resident of Barwessa in Baringo North tries to lift an emaciated cow in the area on January 8, 2017. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Kenya is deep in the throes of a food emergency, partly caused by prolonged drought, which experts are warning will last through the year, leaving millions of people in need of food aid.

The resulting human suffering, loss of life and loss of the livelihoods of entire peoples will definitely keep drought in the national news agenda.

As journalists cover the raging food emergency, it is crucial that they convey the issues arising from the disaster accurately and consistently.

Food emergencies are caused by many different reasons. In Kenya’s case, a severe drought, failed harvests and the government’s poor disaster preparedness are to blame.

The result is that food and water are more inaccessible (distribution complications, citizens’ ability to buy) rather than unavailable (insufficient production).

What we are not going through now, however, is famine. News media must, therefore, be careful not to label the current food emergency as a famine.


Even though there is no universally agreed definition of famine, one definition describes it is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by factors such as crop failure, population imbalance, or poor government policies.

The definition goes on to add that famine is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality.

Throughout human history, every continent has had famine.

Examples include the great famine of Ireland of 1845, the famine of 1958–61 in China, and the Ethiopian famine of 1983–85. Scarcity of food often led to deaths, in some cases of millions of people.

Even though the current food emergency bears some of the characteristics of this definition of a famine, the Kenyan situation has still not yet got to the point of regional malnutrition, starvation and increased deaths.

As such, it would be inaccurate to describe it as famine.

One challenge that any journalist or news media describing the current food emergency as a famine will face is linking the deaths in the drought stricken areas to a severe lack of food and not any other factor.


Second, the journalist will then have to prove that the affected people are completely destitute and fully dependent on food aid.

That there are no local resources, including livestock, to sustain those peoples’ need for food.

Third, the journalist will need to show that the affected people are using survival strategies such as distress migrations of the entire population. Finally, the journalist will have to show in that story the prevalence of global acute malnutrition is substantially elevated not only in children, but also in adolescents and adults as well, and accompanied by a high mortality rate.

Therefore, based on these four criteria, Kenya’s current food emergency has not yet reached the level of a famine.

Obviously, the current food emergency is significant enough to be covered in the news agenda.

But it also needs to be reported accurately, that it is, indeed, a food emergency crisis and not a famine.

Collins Baswony is a communications practitioner working with an international development organisation.

Twitter: @BwanaCollins