Friday, December 02, 2011

Another Famine in Africa –the triumph of greed and ignorance over reason?


I know I’ll be accused of being xenophobic, racist, a doomsayer and worse, but I’ll say it anyway. I find myself very reluctant to give to yet another African Hunger Appeal and no, it's not just "donor fatigue." It's anger. This disaster was foreseen 30 years ago and should have been prevented then. It’s not as if we didn’t have the information or the technology and we are getting very good at predicting the weather. 

In the first place though, I want to say “stop asking poor people in so called rich countries for help.”  They are having a hard time themselves and many of them have made sacrifices and limited their own families in the hope of giving them a higher standard of living. Go to those people who have profited so handsomely over the last few years, while increasing the burdens on the poorest segments of society. Ask the bankers who gave themselves indecent payouts out of public funds, while evicting families from their homes. Ask those CEOs who give themselves million dollar bonuses while throwing people out of work.  Ask the Pope who said condoms don’t prevent Aids and those people who think that food aid should not be tied to birth control measures. Ask our politicians who have just awarded themselves another pay rise, especially those two who managed to find $150,000 each for prostitutes, while asking their constituents to exercise wage restraint. Or ask those greedy agribusiness companies who made fat profits from all the years preceding the drought and are now busily buying up land in poor countries which can ill afford to feed themselves.

My sympathy is with the Africans who once again find themselves in this situation. This time it involves 13 million people, equivalent to half the population of Australia. It is certainly not all their fault. Greed, political instability, incompetence and corruption, inefficient and unequal distribution, poverty and climate change all play a role.

According to the UN, “Temperatures this year are the tenth highest on record since 1850, and the highest ever in a year which experienced a La Niña event, a meteorological phenomenon which is supposed to have a cooling influence on Earth’s atmosphere….” so look well folks, because soon it will be happening all over the world unless we take decisive action NOW. Africa just happens to be at the leading edge of this process, because it is already water poor and at its ecological limits. A bad season, a slight change in the weather and millions are at risk. However, the role of population growth cannot be ignored. As the Population Matters website states:

The UN expects world population to rise from 7 billion in 2010 to between 8 and 11 billion by 2050. What we do in the next 10 years will largely determine the scale of this increase, and the future quality of human life on the planet and the prospects for survival of our fellow species.

For a detailed discussion of the impact of population growth on climate change see this article by the Worldwatch Institute. Ever since the abuses in the name of Population Control in the 1980’s e.g. forced abortions in China, forced sterilisation and castration in India, no one has dared to mention the role population growth plays. Read John Feeney’s article  in Science and Nature “Population:The Elephant in the Room” to understand the problem and let me illustrate this with an example. 

During the Decade of Water and Sanitation which ran from 1981 until 1990, the UN endeavoured to give people in less developed countries access to clean water and sewerage – the lack of which were major causes of preventable disease. By the end of the decade, the UN had far exceeded its targets, but the populations within these countries continued to grow, so that at the end, there were still more people without water than there were at the beginning. The UN has just started on this heroic mission again. I wish them luck!

Although many countries have reached the limits of their arable land or water supplies, most have at least stabilised their birthrates and 16 have achieved zero population growth. Sub -Saharan Africa, by contrast,  which includes the countries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia     still have an average of just under six children per woman, and are already  short of water on a per capita basis even without the current drought, making them all the more vulnerable to famine as populations continue to grow exponentially and climate change proceeds. Unfortunately, even if populations were magically stabilised right this minute, the population of Africa (and similarly afflicted countries such as Pakistan) would continue to grow for several generations as their huge youthful population reaches reproductive age.  Here are the predictions from the World Watch Institute:

“In contrast to this group (the countries which have stabilised), some countries are projected
to triple their populations over the next half-century. (See
Table 2.) For example, Ethiopia’s current population of 62
million will more than triple, as it climbs to 213 million in
2050. Pakistan’s population is projected to go from 148 million
to 357 million, surpassing that of the United States
before 2050. Nigeria, meanwhile, is projected to go from 122
million today to 339 million, giving it more people in 2050
than there were in all of Africa in 1950. From an environmental
vantage point, considering particularly the availability
of water and cropland, it is unlikely that the projected
population increases for these three countries, and other
countries with similar projected gains, will materialize”

Ah, I hear you say,” As people’s education, wealth and life chances improve, they will naturally want fewer children.”  Again, the time for this was 30 years ago when it still worked for South Korea, Taiwan and Kerala in India, but now the time for this has expired.  The energy and resources required to lift such a large portion of humanity out of poverty cannot be found on this planet. We have already exceeded the number of people which the earth can support, even at an extremely modest standard of living.  To understand the link between population growth and the impact on consumption, see for example the impact of energy use or economic growth required on Page 30 of 

The next argument goes something like this: “If Westerners didn’t consume so much, there would be plenty to go around.” While Westerners do use more resources than most Africans or Asians, and there is no excuse for not reducing consumption, they represent only 12% of the current global population and their numbers are stable and declining whereas populations that are still growing will continue to grow exponentially and exacerbate resource depletion, demand for agricultural land, housing, water and energy, all the more so if consumption rises as they become more affluent, as is happening in China and India.  It was the realisation that a two - child policy would add another population the size of India to the existing one and negate any hope of achieving  a better standard of living for its people that led China to  implement it its harsh one child policy twenty years ago

 That is not to say that Westerners and others should not make every effort to reduce their consumption and their ecological footprint (WorldWatch). 

Optimists who think that some kind of magic bullet will materialise to solve these problems – greater productivity, GMO’s or other agricultural techno fixes, are fooling themselves. Despite minor improvements from year to year, productivity has essentially plateaued since the 1990’s and the additional people will be consuming the water and energy required to grow more food, even where the land is available, which it is not in most cases. The UN can predict crop yields and available with great precision these days. Look at the satellite images in

It is seldom reported that prior to the 1994 war in Rwanda, its population increased from 2.5 million in 1950 to a  staggering 8.5 million in 1994, leaving less than .03 of an acre per person of farmland, less than in Bangladesh today. Meanwhile, traditional safety valves for excess populations such as Australia and the USA are also rapidly reaching their ecological limits, if they have not done so already. Ocean fisheries are already in decline. Countries which could previously rely on imports to cover shortfalls of grain, can no longer do so as population growth consumes diminishing surpluses. Even the U.S.A, previously the world’s largest exporter, is already exporting less as its own population expands. So as well as more famines, we can expect more wars, more ethnic tensions, more refugees and more social disintegration ( 

Those who think we should leave Africans and similarly affected countries to their fate are also deluding themselves. We do not live in a hermetically sealed world. Not only do “desperate people do desperate things” but the impact of deforestation, pollution, carbon emissions and consequent climate change, social dislocation, loss of biodiversity etc. will affect us all. 

And, while we are on the subject of fairy tales – no, I don’t think riding your bicycle to work and taking your own shopping bag to the supermarket will save us either! Not while cars are still being produced and power plants are being built. What about a zero population growth policy for cars?

Humanitarian Intervention

Nature is not a humanitarian. It ruthlessly culls populations that exceed their feed limit, regardless of how that came about. While the other issues need to be addressed, if we are going to play God and intervene in infant mortality rates, hunger and disease, we must hand out the condoms and birth control at the same time to avoid future misery.  No one is advocating forcible measures at this stage. While no one likes being told how many children they can have, just as no one particularly likes birth control or abortion, they are all preferable to bringing babies into the world and then having to watch them die of hunger or disease. Since there is already a huge unmet demand for cheap and reliable contraception throughout Africa (currently there is only a 7% uptake among women of reproductive age and it varies greatly across regions) that would be a good place to start.

The Clock is ticking…. more people are being added each second

Being too much of a coward to stand by while people starve, I have made a donation to the Hunger Appeal which will be matched by the Australian Government. However, I have also joined Population Matters* to raise the profile of this issue and to start handing out condoms and spreading the light in darkest Africa, followed closely by  other countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, India and any others whose birthrates are still high, but are already struggling to cope with their growing populations. Genocide is not doing it! ( 

*You can also offset carbon on one of their linked sites.
So much for the stopgap/short term measures because they can’t wait. See next blog or so for others, especially the more positive ones.

Let me finish with a quote from a respondent  to Feeney’s article. 

“As the late Bill Hicks said: - I'm sick and tired of this "Isn't humanity great?" bull*&%#. We're just a virus with shoes... As a species we are already responsible for wiping out numerous other lifeforms on this planet. I hope we are not dumb enough to lay the foundations for our own demise. Even the dinosaurs did better than that.”
Richard Keen, Den Haag, Netherlands

I at least want to be remembered as a thinking virus. How about you?
      PS. There is an interesting footnote on the WorldWatch paper for you millionaires out there. Please don't wait until you are dead to make a bequest. The problem needs fixing NOW.



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