Home | News    Friday 10 February 2006

Drought comes again to East Africa, governments unprepared

Feb 9, 2006 (BISSEL, Kenya) —

Babies in East Africa are starving again.

They lay in battered beds with their skeletal mothers beside them and IV drips to rehydrate and feed them. Their woes won’t end when they have gained weight. All of their families’ wealth — their cattle and goats — are dead.

According to the latest U.N. figures, 11.5 million East Africans don’t have enough to eat. The very young are only the most visible.

Hunger comes to Africa for reasons as diverse as its 52 countries. In some, plagues of locusts destroy crops without warning. In others, government policies wreck the agricultural economy.

In East Africa, which includes Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, drought tips the balance. It arrives every few years, usually predicted months in advance.

Drought does not have to cause hunger. Breaking the cycle wouldn’t take much: just the vision and enough money to provide clean water, distribute electricity and build some roads.

Cattle are grazing in the suburbs again.

The first thing the herders of the Kajiado clan of the Masai tribe do when drought comes is head north to the city of Nairobi.

The Masai gave Nairobi its name, which means "the place with cool water." When British engineers were planning a railway from the coastal town of Mombasa to what is now Uganda, they chose the Masai’s emergency watering hole as a watering point for their steam engines and it eventually became Kenya’s capital.

Even though the Nairobi river is now seriously polluted and barely a trickle, the Masai still come, herding cattle down busy streets to graze in the medians or any open place that may have grass or garbage to eat.

The hungry in East Africa are rarely found in the big towns. They are usually nomadic tribesmen who, against all odds, maintain their traditional ways of life, walking their animals through the semiarid lands no one else has any use for.

Cliches are hitting the headlines again.

"Millions at risk from East African famine," "Aid Group Warns of Famine in East Africa," and "East Africa faces famine crisis," are just some of the recent newspaper and Internet headlines. But famine and hunger are not the same thing, and while the word "famine" grabs attention, the problem is not lack of food. It’s lack of money.

Nicholas Haan, a top expert on East Africa for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, said that technically famine is defined this way: More than 10,000 have starved to death and a society’s ability to cope has broken down.

Another myth is that the hungry are pitiful, helpless and dependent on the rest of the world. That, Haan said, is far from the case.

"Be it Kenyans, Somalis or Ethiopians, these are not passive victims," he said. "They are incredibly resilient people, and they do everything they can to maintain their livelihoods, and they don’t want to be dependent on relief aid."

International donors are handing out millions again.

In response to the alarm raised by aid groups, Europe, the United States and others will start writing. Many of the U.S. government’s checks will go to U.S. farmers to ship food to Africa.

Romano Kiome, the top civil servant in Kenya’s ministry of agriculture and an expert on African crops, said when U.S. grain arrives, the price of locally grown cereals will collapse, hurting African farmers.

"We have enough in the country to feed the hungry," Kiome said.

But nomadic people are too poor to buy it and too far from roads, electricity and clean water to make enough money in good years to cushion them when drought strikes, Kiome said. What his government needs is money to buy food from their own farmers and to transport it to the needy _ not boxes of goods marked "Gift of the USA."

People in T-shirts splashed with logos are handing out food again.

Dozens of international organizations specialize in providing the labor and logistics to deliver aid.

Dan Maxwell, the deputy regional director for one of them, Atlanta-based CARE International, is frustrated that more has not been done to break the cycle of suffering.

"Every time there is a big emergency, there is a lot of talk during the emergency about addressing the underlying causes of these things," he said. "But as soon as the images disappear from the media, all of that talk dissipates really quickly."

When people and animals starving, he said, the emphasis must turn to providing immediate, life saving assistance.

Maxwell said he feels "a combination of frustration that we can’t seem to get a handle on this, but a determination not to get cynical about it and think we’re not making progress."

Long-term solutions have been ignored again.

If Western and Asian countries can deal with cyclical droughts without loss of life, so can the nations of East Africa, with the right kind of help.

"Drought will come and go, unless we deal with the issues of governance and sustainable development in these areas we can be sure these crises will come back to us," said Haan, the U.N. food expert.

Intermediate solutions include drilling water wells and helping nomadic herders adopt modern agriculture and livestock practices so they can join the cash economy. Long-term solutions require that herders in semiarid areas find other livelihoods and limit the number of animals they raise.

Samare Kisipan, 33, has gone to school, owns land and operates a business in Kajiado. As a Masai, he understands the importance of cattle to his culture, but he also knows that the traditional ways can no longer be supported.

"Now all of our cows are gone and we have to find a way to continue to exist."

Until this happens, there will always be a next time.

Babies in East Africa will be starving again.

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On the Net:

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization: http://www.fao.org

CARE International http://www.care.org

Food Security Analysis Unit, Somalia: http://www.fsausomali.org/

Famine Early Warning System: http://www.fews.net