Think famine is only a rural issue? Think again.

by Karly Kiefer

According to the U.N, the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the organization’s founding in 1945.  For the first time in modern history, four countries are on the brink of famine:  —Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia—threatening 20 million people. The images that often come to mind upon hearing ‘famine’—and indeed, the images that come up from a quick google image search—are distinctly rural–cracked earth, fields full of dried and dead crops, subsistence farmers and their families starving and skinny. And indeed, while famines usually disproportionately affect rural dwellers and those who live off the land, this is not the whole story by any means.  It is important to understand the linkages between famine and cities. Failing to understand how cities can be affected by famines means an incomplete understanding of the complex, interconnected nature of the issue.

Here are three important urban-rural connections that show the urban face of famine, defined as the extreme scarcity of food:

1. Urban Migration

Historically, famines have been responsible for mass migrations—often from rural to urban areas—as people temporarily or permanently relocate in search of food. The Irish Potato Famine, which occurred from 1845-1849 and was responsible for the death of 1 million in Ireland, caused a massive wave of rural to urban movement, not only within Ireland itself (the percentage of Dubliners born outside of Dublin increased from 27 to 39 percent between 1841 and 1851, for instance), but cross-nationally as well.  Over half a million Irish immigrated to the United States during that period—most of them settling in large cities such as New York and Boston.[1]

Many of the countries experiencing famine today are experiencing mass rural-urban movement. The graph to the right shows how the percentage of urban population has changed over time in the four countries currently experiencing famine. Increasing urbanization is a long-term trend beyond the scope of any specific short-term cause, and it is difficult to pinpoint one specific explanation for current urban migration trends in specific countries—indeed, most migrants move for a combination of reasons that may be linked to economic opportunity, escape from violent conflict, and weather related crises. However, there is reason to believe that today’s famines could exacerbate urban migration in certain places. After Somalia’s last drought and famine of 2011, for instance, “rural people migrated in large numbers towards urban centres, particularly Mogadishu, in the hope of accessing humanitarian assistance.”[2]

In many cases, those experiencing famine emigrate from the country completely, settling in refugee camps or cities in neighboring countries, as is currently happening with South Sudanese fleeing to Uganda to escape violence and famine. Uganda recently became fifth on the list of top refugee-hosting countries, with over a million refugees—800 thousand of which are South Sudanese[3]. While the majority of refugees settle in the refugee camps in rural areas of Northern Uganda, many are beginning to take advantage of Uganda’s progressive Refugee Act of 2006, which gives refugees the rights to live, work, and start businesses in Uganda’s towns and cities.[4] Kampala city now houses 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers, nearly 11,000 of which are South Sudanese.

2. Urban disease outbreak

As reported by Ann Thomas, a water, sanitation, and hygiene specialist for UNICEF, in a recent New York Times article, “During Somalia’s last famine, the deadliest areas were not the empty deserts where there was little food, but the displaced-persons camps near urban areas where, comparatively speaking, there was plenty of food”.[5] As those plagued by famine and drought in rural villages fled to makeshift settlements in and around urban centers such as Mogadishu, inadequate water and sanitation, coupled with increasingly crowded living conditions, led to the spread of communicable diseases such as cholera. While traditionally, IDP camps in urban areas may have been thought of as ‘separate’ from the rest of the urban fabric, the lines are becoming more blurry, especially in places like Mogadishu where IDP camps are so overcrowded that displaced persons are often forced to resettle many times.[6] Many of the IDPs who migrated to Mogadishu during Somalia’s 2011 famine have chosen not to return to their rural homes, and Brookings reports that differentiating between internally displaced persons and permanent urban poor residents in Mogadishu is increasingly difficult.[7]

Similarly, in Nigeria, the city of Maiduguri has recently become a disease hub, as the influx of internally displaced persons fleeing from famine and violence in the Northeast has nearly doubled the city’s population.[8] The capacity of cities to respond and adapt to an influx of displaced people—both with immediate, humanitarian aid, and with longer-term integration solutions for displaced persons who may never return to their rural homes—is critical to lessening the impact of famines.

Indeed, well-planned and resourced cities that can respond to the housing, service, and economic needs of ever-increasing populations are a crucial preemptive measure for all types of humanitarian crises and disasters.

3. Urban impacts of conflict and the destruction of supply chains dependent on cities

Not all famines are caused solely by nature and climate—political and social strife can cause or exacerbate famine, particularly when access to food is cut off, either as an inadvertent consequence of physical destruction and infrastructure decimation, or intentionally, as a strategy of war. Each of the four countries facing famine today is engaged in prolonged violent conflicts which have directly caused or exacerbated their famines.[9] Particularly for countries that depend on imports for food, urban and rural dwellers alike are reliant on complex supply chains that span across countries and cities. In Yemen, for instance, 90 percent of food is imported, most of it through the port city of Hodeida. As the civil war in Yemen drags on, Yemen’s President and his coalition of support from Saudi Arabia have blocked imports to Hodeida to stop militia groups from accessing imported arms.[10] This, as well as other blockades that have made highly populated areas inaccessible, has cut off supply chains and caused millions across the country to face food shortages and malnutrition. Infrastructure—specifically supply-chain infrastructure– in cities, thus, can be used both as a lifeline—and as a weapon—in human-caused famines.

This humanitarian crisis represents a convergence of many of IHC Global’s key policy topics—food security, urban water and sanitation, migration and its impacts. IHC Global is critically concerned about the global famines and will continue to advocate for a holistic understanding of their causes and increased funding to assist those affected.  Continued understanding of the urban-rural linkages and inter-connections that affect and are affected by famines are crucial to both responding to the famines facing the world today, and to preventing future famines.

[1] Sources: O’Grada & O’Rouke, 1997; PBS
[2] Source: Forced Migration Review, Feb 2014.
[3] Source: IRIN, 2017.
[4] Source: Refugee Livelihoods in Ugandan cities, IIED. March 2017.
[5] Source: NY Times
[6] Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, March 2015.
[7] Source: Internal Displacement in Somalia, Brookings. 2014.
[8] Source: Washington Post; Thomas Reuters Foundation
[9] Souce: Washington Post
[10] Source: Washington Post