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Earth Sense: Somalia hampered by civil war, severe drought
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Somalia is in the news again, this time in connection with a U.S. strike on rebel forces. Largely unnoticed, though, is the plight of the civilian population. Hunger and starvation have been a constant occurrence there for decades.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush sent U.S. troops to protect food distribution venues. But the ongoing fighting escalated into all-out civil war.

In 2010 and 2011, poor summer rains led to crop failures, and a huge food crisis was at hand again by 2012.

Currently, according to the World Food Programme Organization (, more than 700,000 people are at immediate risk of starvation; 202,000 children under age 5 are acutely malnourished.

Besides politics and war, there are powerful natural forces causing the crisis. Somalia is in the Sahel Zone, the area south of the Sahara desert, along with Ethiopia and a number of other African nations. Rainfall comes from summer thunderstorms. The region’s inhabitants depend on the spotty rain showers for growing crops and maintaining herds. The rain-producing mechanism is called Intertropical Convergence Zone. It shifts northward from the equator in summer and back in winter. But this mechanism has often failed in the past 50 years.

From 1968 to 1973, severe droughts affected the Sahel Zone. An estimated 200,000 people and 5 million cattle died of starvation.

The population traditionally guarded against disaster by planting a variety of crops, spread out over many weeks, so that at least some were likely to survive drought periods. They also kept great numbers of cattle, which could roam over an extensive area for grazing. Political and organizational development since 1950 made these safeguards largely impossible. National boundaries now restrict migration and a nomadic lifestyle.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Western nations tried to alleviate the water shortage by drilling wells. This led to unhealthy concentrations of cattle herds and people at the places where water was available. Grasslands were quickly depleted, and starvation set in once again. The overgrazed lands have been slowly turning into deserts. Bare soil reinforces drought by reflecting more heat into space than prairies and woodlands do.

One good aspect, among all the bad news, is that warming of the tropics as a result of climatic change may be pushing the ITCZ back into its normal summer location. There’s hope that Somalia and its neighbors might see rain patterns stabilizing during the coming decades.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at