Drought in Horn of Africa - does the world still care?
Humanitarian disaster in slow motion threatens nearly
10 million people:
So far there is only one piece of relative good news to cling to in
the giant humanitarian crisis now threatening 10 million people in
dust-blown, rain-starved East Africa.
Families wait to go to a refugee camp in the Ethiopian town of
Dolo Ado, just North of the border with Somalia. Reuters
It is that we are still dealing with a severe drought, not yet an
actual famine, a difference that is absolutely crucial.
“I liken this to a slow-motion train wreck,” Robert Fox, the head of
Oxfam Canada told me this week. “We still have a very short time to get
people off safely before the crash.” What will it take to address the
humanitarian crisis in East Africa? Bettina Leuscher, from the UN’s
World Food Programme and Brian Stewart discuss the needs and the
challenges on The National.
No rains in sight
What he means is that while the people affected are struggling with
failed crops and lost cattle herds, the rest of the world by now should
have received enough advance warning to provide large-scale relief.
Clean water and food is needed, boreholes have to be dug to find
deeper wells and cattle saved where possible. But on top of that,
central feeding centres with medical supplies need to be established -
all on the double. For we’re very late.
The UN admits it is already ‘behind the curve’ because the early
warnings of environmental disaster in these stricken parts of Ethiopia,
Somalia, Kenya and just-independent South Sudan, were not heeded in time
by governments - both local and those abroad - and many international
Late last year, the UN called for $ 500 million for Ethiopia and
Kenya to address food security, but barely half that amount has come in.
Lost time like this can lead right to catastrophe. Only a few
governments, such as the British, have responded rapidly. Many in the
developed world are cutting foreign aid due to their own financial
problems and many Westerners seem jaded after several years of
continuing crises from Haiti to Pakistan to Japan.
I never want to sound overly alarmist but we do need to worry here.
This is the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years and you can sense
legitimate alarm among relief officials.
Also, keep in mind that weather experts are predicting no rains in
that part of the world until October and then probably only light ones
at that. Already the landscape is streaked with long lines of dead
cattle and their whitening bones. Across three nations, a pastoral
population is losing its herds, its very life essence in many cases.
Farmers have had to consume seeds. Some food prices, such as for
sorghum, a local staple, have soared 240 percent. The main drought
refugee camp in Kenya is exploding with close to 400,000 hungry people
in a facility designed for 90,000.
More worrying is that if this drought, along with the exploding food
prices, homelessness, disease and social chaos, trips over into famine
you will see the death toll climb with astonishing rapidity.
It likely won’t become another monster famine like the one in
Ethiopia in 1984-85 that killed one million people, mainly women and
children, before the TV cameras of a stunned world.
For I find it almost impossible to believe the rest of the world
would let something like that happen again. But that’s hardly a reason
to relax. The loss of life could still run into the tens of thousands
and whole pastoral societies could crumble.
The World Food Programme has a five-point scale that runs from
‘general food secure’ up to the ultimate horror (stage five),
‘catastrophic famine.’ East Africa is now at stage four. Famine, if
declared, will mean up to one out of every three people will slip into
acute malnutrition and the world will face an international crisis in an
inhospitable dust bowl that will include the anarchy of Somalia as well
as perhaps, by then, 12 million refugees.
A central point to remember is that we’ve not had a true regional
famine in Africa in the 26 years since Ethiopia. Should this become one,
it will be a huge defeat for our Western concept of concerned humanity.
Bring on the big battalions of aid
What is so galling about this is the inattention. Time and again,
experts have warned that changing weather patterns were causing
increased survival difficulties in East Africa. Since 1984 extensive
early warning systems have given us careful printouts on droughts and
Droughts used to flatten the region about once a decade, but now they
strike every two years or so.
This means that even the proudest pastoralists never get a chance to
recover from their losses. Their cattle die or must be sold off; next to
go are their tools, then seeds, until there’s nothing left but despair
I get asked all the time what kind of aid efforts are best when it
comes to huge emergencies like this.
And while I’m a strong believer that international aid has to be
harnessed to long-term development and that governments in the region
have to get serious about reforestation, new roads and crops and
alternatives to cattle, bitter experience has taught me to stick with
the ‘big battalions of aid’ in dire emergencies.
In this, five of our more established Canadian agencies, which did
pick up the early warnings months ago, have formed a humanitarian
coalition to persuade the federal government and the Canadian public to
help East Africa. These five are extraordinarily experienced in
confronting every conceivable kind of humanitarian disaster: CARE
Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Quebec, Plan Canada and the venerable Save
the Children, Canada. They know the logistics, the diplomacy and the
security realities of emergency help.
The life of pastoralists being destroyed by drought will not easily
be portrayed on television. And we in the West have grown too used to
responding only to the starkest images of suffering, like in Ethiopia in
1984. Source: CBC News