A widespread drought in East Africa has left millions of facing starvation, but experts argue that while dry spells are cyclical the humanitarian catastrophes they are causing are avoidable.
Seasons of failed rains in southern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, Somalia and parts of Djibouti have struck the region with its worst drought in decades, with around 10 million people in dire need of relief aid.
“The droughts are cyclical, they are inevitable,” said Alexander Matheou, the regional representative of the International Federation of the Red Cross. “What is not inevitable is that every time it turns into a humanitarian crisis,” he said.
Two years ago, huge food shortages and loss of livelihood sparked by a harsh drought also left millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance.
But the rains that followed were erratic and insufficient, so that residents hardly recovered from the drought.
In Kenya’s northern Turkana region, malnutrition rates have increased to 37 percent, compared to 15 percent in 2010, according to the aid group Oxfam.
Malnutrition rates among children under five in Somalia are now the world’s highest, owing to persistent violence and the unprecedented drought, the international Red Cross said.
Thousands of Somalis are fleeing daily into neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya to seek relief from the effects of drought and war.
Relief groups are struggling to cope with the crisis as Western governments pledge funds to come to the rescue of the devastated millions.
While drought remains a natural disaster, failure or inability by regional governments to prepare for crises, and to establish and effect long-term measures to lessen human suffering, worsens the consequences.
Conflicts such as Somalia’s relentless civil strife since 1991 and other insurgencies have also disrupted lifestyles, displacing hundreds of thousands whose plight is compounded by drought.
“It is important to remember that this (crisis) is also man-made to an extent. Although it is caused by failed rains, this is also caused by failure of governments to take a long-term approach,” said Oxfam’s Alun McDonald.
Emergency aid remains palliative and often reaches those in need when they are desperate and frail.
“Certainly emergency aid at the latest stage of drought is not the best way to go. It becomes necessary because certain things have not been done earlier,” Matheou said.
Governments should invest more in agricultural research to develop drought resistant crops and fodder for livestock and donors should support measures to curb the effects of drought.
“Although governments and their development partners cannot make the rains come, they can mitigate the impact of these recurring droughts in East Africa by helping farmers and herders build resilience to these inevitable meteorological occurrences,” said Kevin Cleaver of the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
The areas in East Africa often affected by the cyclical drought have also been neglected by governments, with no electricity, roads, water and other basic health and education facilities.
Resolving Somalia’s long-running conflict is key to easing the suffering of millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance as well as restoring regional stability.
Experts warn that the current drought will peak in August, with the next rains expected in October.
“Even then, it will take a few months for harvest, for people to plant again, for pasture to grow for animals to eat. So even if it rains in October, the impact of the crisis will still be felt until the end of 2011 at least,” McDonald said.