Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Drought, Conflict Cause East African Crisis 

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday,  September 19 / 09

Zack Gross

Twenty million human lives are currently in grave danger in the East African and Horn of Africa regions due to several years of drought and on-going war. 

Oxfam Canada stated in the media several days ago that “rains have failed, crops are sparse and animals are dying”, particularly in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.  Political instability since the last Kenyan national election and a fresh round of fighting in the failed state of Somalia, around its capital Mogadishu, have caused aid workers to refer to the situation as the “perfect storm” of humanitarian crises.

In Somalia, where war has flamed up again between government forces, backed by African Union peacekeepers, and Islamist insurgents, thousands more civilians have recently been killed and half the country’s population needs food aid.  The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says that there are 250,000 newly displaced people in the country since May, bringing the total to 1.55 million.  A refugee camp set up in northeastern Kenya, with capacity supposedly for 90,000 Somalis, now “houses” 300,000, with little access to water and sanitation facilities.

The drought situation began four years ago, leading to food shortages and price spikes.  The corn crop, a staple of East African diets, has shrunk by over 25%.  “Pasture lands are nothing but dry bush and dead leaves”, says Oxfam Britain of the Kenyan situation.  Says the New York Times:  “The devastating drought is stirring up trouble in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and in the hinterland where communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land”.

Water sources have dried up in Ethiopia, so that beans, peas, corn and potatoes are dying and herds are growing weak.  The Mount Kenya area of northern Kenya, just south of the Ethiopian border, was once the most fertile in the region, but the nomadic Masai herders there have now been reduced to eating their own recently dead cattle.  The capital city Nairobi, a metropolis of four million people, has had some 80,000 cattle herded into it, as their owners seek out ditches, school yards and other patches of green or puddles of moisture.

UN officials blame a combination of climate change and economic slump for the crisis in East Africa.  The violence that has taken place, especially in Kenya, is a product of poverty as much as the often-mentioned ethnic or tribal differences in the country.  People are competing for very few jobs and little food, while watching their children drop out of school, get sick, malnourished and closer to death. 

Typically, rain falls between February and June, but has failed to do so reliably since 2005.  Small-scale subsistence farming is the mainstay of food production, so failed rains impact those most in need.  People rely on local markets and their own produce, and don’t have the resources or access to the kinds of grocery stores we are used to. 

Their other option is food aid, and not only have international agencies had trouble raising funds for this in our current global economic climate, but it is also hard on people’s dignity to accept assistance when they are used to being independent producers in a productive region.   Heightened insecurity exists as a UN-led emergency appeal for almost $600 million in relief aid for the region has only attracted 28% of needed funds so far.

The famine is beginning now to edge into Tanzania and Uganda, and these countries are sending their stockpiled reserves of cereal grains to affected regions, as well as accessing what they can from the World Food Program.  This new development is increasing the fear of future starvation as other nearby countries, such as Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan also rely on what East Africa can grow.  Food prices increased 6% in Uganda in August while electricity prices rose 6.5% after two hydroelectric dams shut down due to low water levels.

Accusations are being leveled at people in positions of power in these countries, as well, that they are hoarding food, whether locally produced or food assistance, for themselves or to sell on the black market.  Development spokespeople are also cautioning that food aid will only go so far and that governments need to be instituting new technologies, such as drip irrigation, in order to mitigate the affects of climate change and extreme weather conditions.

This perfect storm brings together long-standing issues of civil conflict with relatively new climatic challenges.  It is a story that is often lost on the inside pages of our daily papers, but one that affects tens of millions of people.  

Some climatologists are hoping that the El Nino weather pattern that is predicted to re-emerge will bring needed rains back to East Africa, but humanity cannot continue to rely on hope, and only new policies and practices around current food and climate insecurity can deal with this situation in a practical, long-term way.


Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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