East Africa’s worst drought – or is this the shape of things to come?

Posted on July 8, 2011


At eight forty-five this morning I was on a train heading out of London to Cambridge. I squeezed into a seat sandwiched between wide-eyed, anxious teenagers and their somewhat smug parents. After all even if your kid is bright enough to get into the historic university, you still need some serious cash to afford the tuition fees to secure their seat in the classroom.

My journey however was for an entirely different reason. I went to meet the senior director of the Great Apes Programme at the Arcus Foundation – Annette Lanjouw. The Arcus Foundation was set up by a wealthy gay American John Stryker, who wanted to provide funding to organisations that could benefit two causes close to his heart. Social Justice – advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities and The Great Apes Programme to conserve and protect these endangered primates, including the gibbons (lesser apes).

I’m hoping to start my Masters in September and as part of my Mres I will be carted off somewhere to carry out fieldwork for three months. Africa is definitely on my radar so it’s hardly surprising that it was a prominent feature in our conversation this morning.

Drought in East Africa

You’ve heard me talk extensively about collaborative approaches across development and conservation and this was something Annette stressed was part of the mantra at Arcus and also the need to get more awareness out to the public via the media. It’s vital to realise there is a bigger picture when it comes to the natural world and that everything has a knock-on-effect even if it’s not immediate. Sounds obvious, but there are still decision-makers globally who fail to embrace this way of thinking. We must start acknowledging this and questioning why changes to the natural world are happening and how has man contributed.

Since the beginning of 2011, around 15,000 Somalis each month have fled into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia looking for food and water. The refugee camp at Dadaab, in Kenya, has been overwhelmed by 370,000 people.

Millions of East Africans under increasing pressure from poverty and disease have had their problems worsened with the prolonged drought in the region. The images of hordes of tired, desperate people arriving at refugee camps after walking for days carrying their children and few possessions has really hit home how bleak a situation they are facing. For the “lucky ones”, if we can call them that, their fight for survival is far from over. But why wasn’t more done sooner to avoid this crisis?

If you believe what many NGO’s have been saying, it appears the international community has once again failed to listen to warnings about a looming crisis.  People on the ground say predictions for this drought had been known for a long time, but few in power have bothered to cough up funding in time.

According to some scientists the frequency and length of droughts has increased over the last two decades, partly, some say, as a result of climate change. Logging is just one part of the jigsaw, and it continues at an increasing rate as the forests are raped for their wood, species large and small struggle to survive and ecosystems are altered also affecting the climate. But despite this and other anthropogenic activities believed to be damaging the planet, governments and large corporations turn a blind eye. The consequences will unfortunately be felt, if not in our lifetime then in another generations’.

Food shortages are affecting up to 12 million people. The UN has not declared a famine but large areas of the region are now classified as in crisis or emergency, with malnutrition affecting up to 35-40% of children under five.

Speaking to the news agency Reuters about the drought, director of the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA), Sean Lowrie said: “We know the lessons from previous disasters and we have a moral responsibility to act, but we are limited by this lack of funding at a critical time.”.

Unlike other emergency disaster relief, a drought does not have the same knee-jerk reaction as an earthquake. Despite predictions from those on the ground that the situation was quickly going to turn into a disaster zone, aid organisations say they couldn’t get the funding they needed to ensure there was enough food and sanitation for people before the drought started. Why? Because unless you have pictures of malnourished Africans streaming across borders, dying cattle and dried up riverbeds, no one cares.

It really frustrates me that planning could prevent the suffering of thousands. Short-term solutions are simply not good enough, we have a responsibility to prevent future crises from happening and damage limitation can be planned for.

The effects of the East African drought which, if the climate predictions are right will go on for a long time, and will have devastating effects on the economic, social development of the region. It’s high time for change!