On July 20, a famine was officially declared in two regions in Somalia: Bakool and the Lower Shabelle. Two weeks later, on August 4, three additional areas in the country were reported to have slipped into famine.
According to the United Nations, famine is defined as when 30 percent or more of children under five in a given area suffer from acute malnutrition and at least two people per 10,000 starve to death every day.
Of course, such a cold calculus does little to convey the magnitude of human tragedy now unfolding in the Horn of Africa, a tragedy which is said to have already claimed the lives of 30,000 children and which could scale to catastrophic proportions -- at least a half a million souls could perish -- if the international donor community does not respond quickly enough with another $700 million in humanitarian aid.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed addressing the crisis in Somalia, rightly points out that immediate action is necessary to prevent an already dire situation from getting much worse. At the same time, he also highlights the need for long-term solutions, such as the use of drought-resistant seeds, improved irrigation techniques, and livestock programs, that must be put in place to mitigate against the adverse effects of climate change on poor and famine-prone regions of the world.
Yet, a key part of the solutions equation is energy and the critical role it can and should play in achieving food security by providing greater access to water in regions of the world that solely rely on rain to irrigate crops. For example, in 2007, the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF.org) installed three solar-powered drip irrigation systems for women farming collectives in Dunkassa and Bessassi, two villages in the Kalalé district of northern Benin in West Africa. SELF's Solar Market Garden marries solar pumping technology with drip irrigation to water and fertilize crops.
A two-year Stanford University study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that SELF's solar drip irrigation model "significantly augments both household income and nutritional intake, particularly during the dry season, and is cost-effective compared to alternative technologies."
According to Stanford's assessment, each Solar Market Garden has supplied nearly two tonnes of produce per month. About 20 percent is kept for home consumption; the balance is sold at market. In fact, the women are earning an extra $7.50 per week selling fresh produce. Not only has nutrition improved in Dunkassa and Bessassi, but income levels also have risen, which help pay for school fees, medical treatment, and other economic development initiatives.
It is during northern Benin's six-month dry season that this targeted use of renewable energy has had the biggest impact. These women, by virtue of their new found ability -- thanks to the sun -- to pump water from rivers and underground aquifers, have finally succeeded in breaking free from their historical dependency on rain-fed agriculture.
The U.N. has recently acknowledged that access to modern energy is essential to meeting the Millennium Development Goals, and has designated 2012 as the "Year of Sustainable Energy for All," the goal being to provide clean energy to the 1.6 billion people living without electricity.
For now, the world has a moral imperative to help save lives in Somalia, but as pointed out by the U.N. Secretary-General, we also need to be thinking about and acting on the structural changes that are required to address questions of food security over the long-term. Solutions such as solar-powered drip irrigation offer great hope for parts of the world that are especially vulnerable to famine during periods of extended drought like the one now occurring in the Horn of Africa.