Drought, disaster loom – ISN

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Simon Roughneen in Turkana, Kenya

The failure of the long rains in late 2005 has left at least 11 million east Africans vulnerable to a severe drought and debilitating food shortages. As animals die due to lack of water and pasture, the people who depend on their livestock for milk, meat, and income are growing hungrier by the day. A region characterised by persistent food insecurity, eastern Africa now faces the real possibility that a famine could devastate its drought-affected areas.

Hunger often affects the young first. Infants are usually most vulnerable to malnutrition (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya are the hardest-hit countries, with food insecurity also a problem in Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, and Tanzania. Meanwhile, in Sudan and Uganda, over eight million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) languish in camps, dependent on food aid.

Overall, 3.5 million Kenyans are affected, according to a UN/Kenyan government assessment carried out in January. In Somalia, a failed state cannot hope to care for 1.7 million vulnerable inhabitants in the country’s central, southern, and northern regions. Another 2.6 million require emergency food assistance in Ethiopia.

The causes of food insecurity in the region are complex. The landscape is arid to semi-arid. Pastoralists, those who practice animal husbandry, are the hardest hit by the drought, as their animals need regular water, pasture, and foliage. They live in areas where agriculture is a physical impossibility and lack of investment and political marginalisation mean that alternate livelihoods are not available.

A tightening noose

Numerous pre-famine indicators such as widespread livestock deaths, culling of young animals to protect breeding animals, increased human and animal disease, and widespread acute malnutrition are present – and as confirmed by an ISN Security Watch visit to northern Kenya – and all too visible in the remote areas affected by the drought.

Food insecurity has always been a reality for these people, with a drought occuring on average of every five years. However, now there is drought every one or two years. Even the time-honored coping mechanisms practiced by the nomadic herders that predominate in the region, and that are most affected by and vulnerable due to the drought, are now overwhelmed by the crisis enveloping eastern Africa since late last year.

Inadequate disaster management policies, political and economic marginalisation of thinly populated remote regions, state failure in the case of Somalia, and intermittent conflict all contribute to the food insecurity prevalent among east Africa’s pastoralists.

For example, inter-clan fighting and warlordism in Somalia, inter-tribal cross-border cattle rustling between Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, as well as a proliferation of cheap small arms mean that many people cannot move about freely to farm or to find pasture and water for their animals. This time, nature has produced what appears to be an unprecedented drought to compound the harsh existence endured by these people.

In Somalia, political collapse and persistent insecurity means that access to the vulnerable is difficult and dangerous for aid workers. Looking further down the line, it is highly likely that continued drought and food shortages may lead to livelihood-based clashes between different tribes and socio-economic interests. This would be not unlike other part resource-based conflicts in Africa such as Darfur, where marginalisation, and a dwindling resource pie to be shared out, are compounded by ethnic differences and political indifference or manipulation to produce conflict and complex humanitarian emergency.

Bad timing for donor fatigue

Globally, over 800 million people go to bed hungry each night, according to Oxfam UK. Drought, food insecurity, malnutrition, and death from famine are nothing new to Africa, both in the past and in recent history. Despite numerous averted famines in recent years – from Ethiopia in 2003, to Malawi since 2004, and Niger in 2005 – the threat of people dying from due to lack of food is real once again.

A massive local and international intervention is needed to avert a horrible disaster, James Morris, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP), says.

At a press conference in Nairobi, Morris said: “These people have run out of water and food. Unless we reach them all very soon they will run out of time.”

The WFP says it needs US$225 million to buy food but has received only US$28 million.

However, money may be hard to come by after a year of almost continuous humanitarian and natural disasters. The UN has recently revamped its Central Emergency Response Fund, seeking US$500 million to enable it deal quickly and decisively with humanitarian emergencies. As things stand, funding is at just over US$256 million, with wealthy nations such as Japan and Germany, the world’s third and fourth largest economies, respectively, failing to contribute to the fund, while smaller donor nations such as Ireland and Sweden are set to contribute a disproportionately high amount. Moreover, developing nations Pakistan, India and Egypt have all pledged money.

Donor nations may be shaken from their slack approach to humanitarian emergency on a case-by-case basis, when images of emaciated people in arid, inhospitable terrain emerge in the media. In any case, real suffering is more compelling than an institution, so the donations required to meet the drought-famine challenge head-on may yet manifest themselves.

Timing is crucial. The WFP says its food stocks will be depleted by end of April, adding that any gap in the food pipeline would prove fatal for so many weakened people. On the other hand, the Kenyan government maintains that it has ample food in stock – but that the main concern is that it cannot get the food to the people quickly enough due to transport and infrastructural hurdles affecting the marginalised and remote regions in the north and east of the country.

“Our stores are full, the problem is that we are unable to move the food out of the stores as fast as the farmers are bringing it in,” government spokesman Alfred Mutua said at a news conference.

The view from the ground

The Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD) said on 8 March that the severe drought that has caused hunger and hit key export crops was not over. Despite a week of rain, the scorching conditions prevail in Kenya’s northern Turkana District, visited by ISN Security Watch earlier this month.

During a drive through the region, I saw emaciated goats, donkeys, and even camels, whose humps are almost worn flat due to lack of water and foliage. As the sun reached its afternoon zenith, 40 degree temperatures were exacerbated by distant mirages where what looked like pools of water appeared in the distance.

I also saw men digging into a dried-up river bed near Lokichar, just north of the Rift Valley. After burrowing eight feet, they found stagnant underground water, and excavated a 10×10 foot pit to allow people access. Boreholes are dug and maintained by the local Catholic diocese. However, the severity of the drought has placed these water resources under immense pressure, prompting people to devise alternate and desperate mechanisms. The water is shared between humans and animals, and is contributing to the increasing disease rate among locals. Malnutrition compounds the poor disease resistance.

Local representative Paul Enyang told ISN Security Watch: “There is no dispensary here. We are visited by a doctor who arrives in an airplane once a month. And now people are hungry and are getting sick.”

A dried-up river bed is 56 kilometers from the nearest road, accessible by 4×4.

A multifaceted effort is needed to ensure that people now affected are better able to cope in future. This involves long-term development approaches with a commitment to regional and rural development by governments; peace-building efforts where needed; structural economic reforms in conjunction with good donor policy by governments and international organisations such as the World Bank.

A rapid, effective, and targeted response by donors and local governments could ensure that such an outcome will not happen. However, it seems that time is short and that political will to effect such an operation remains lacking.

More immediately, what is needed is a better local infrastructure, medication provision, clean water, and sanitation. In addition, skills training and educational initiatives are needed to provide an alternative to pastoralism and animal husbandry.

But providing an alternative to what has become a way of life may prove to be a challenge, not only to those trying to help, but to those living in the area as well.

As one man in northern Kenya told ISN Security Watch: “Without our animals we are almost dead ourselves.”

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