In-depth: Struggling with the legacy of drought

HORN OF AFRICA: Introduction

Photo: UN-EUE
"The worst of the drought may be over but for this Borana woman, the future remains uncertain"
NAIROBI, 2 July 2001 (IRIN) - The battle against the latest round of starvation and famine in the Horn of Africa has been fought successfully, but the war against the extreme poverty and economic hardship that formed the backdrop to the crisis in 2000 has by no means been won.

Looking beyond the newly green pastures that have come with the season of long rains are millions of pastoralist families whose futures hang in the balance following three years of drought. In Kenya alone, more than four million people will face severe difficulties if food aid and other relief assistance are not forthcoming and extended until the end of the year.

A little over a year ago, international media attention was focused on Gode in the Ethiopian Somali region, where thousands of destitute pastoralists had gathered in search of food aid. Following generally favourable rains, the picture today appears very different, with signs that livestock are recovering and milk production is on the rise. Pockets of extreme need still persist, however, and there are upwards of 100,000 people who remain stranded in makeshift camps, where they are dependant on relief handouts.

In Somalia, malnutrition rates are high throughout much of the south, and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has issued an alert on expected food shortages as poor rains in the south-central regions threaten the country's main grain harvest. The first signs of hardship have already emerged, with some poorer families barely able to afford one meal per day, and others migrating to urban centres in search of work.

The donor response to appeals launched by the UN earlier this year, however, has been disappointing. First was the Horn of Africa regional appeal for US $353 million, launched in March, then a number of individual UN country teams issued appeals, some jointly with their host governments, others separately. In total, relief needs in the region amount to around US $700 million. While the donor response to the emergency last year was considered generous at just under 70 percent of total needs, this year food pledges are only around 40 percent of the requirement, and for recovery interventions in water, health, livestock and agricultural production, the response has been only a little over 21 percent.

"The total, if all country appeals are added together, sounds like a great deal," says UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Bronek Szynalski, "but it is less than US $54 per person.' With some 13 million people in the region still suffering from the effects of drought, "54 dollars per person to put people back on track, to help them regain their dignity, their normal livelihoods, is not too much to ask," he adds.

"The cost of doing nothing is so big, and at the end of the day you'll end up spending 10 times what you would have spent," said Fatuma Abdikadir, community development coordinator for the Arid lands Resource Management project (ALRMP), a decentralised office under Kenya's Office of the President.

More than 20 million people in the Horn of Africa derive their livelihoods from pastoralism, contributing millions of dollars to the national economies of their regions. But the majority lost cattle, sheep, goats and burden animals during the prolonged drought, and although they received food aid they remain highly vulnerable and have yet to recover their livelihoods to a degree that is sustainable through the end of the year, relief workers say.

"People rush in [to help], and the minute it starts raining they just walk away," Abdikadir said. "If these people have lost their livelihoods, that is the economic base for education, for feeding themselves, for improving themselves in any way. The livestock is their bank, is their asset. With the erosion of that asset, you have nothing left."

The evidence of the devastation caused by the drought is scattered across the Horn, stretching from Kenya to Ethiopia and Somalia and into Eritrea and Djibouti. Herds are smaller, an increasing number of people have moved into semi-urban areas, and makeshift camps of destitute families remain scattered throughout the region. There are also many contradictions: milk production has recovered since the start of the rains yet malnutrition rates remain high; the volume of relief food has driven grain prices to record low levels, yet many needy families still do not have enough to eat; recent rainfall has been generally good, yet, in places, water supplies are dangerously low and harvest failures imminent. Appearances can be deceptive.

"If the relief food stops we'd have to sell the animals to buy cereal or maize," said Shaykh Umar, a pastoralist in Kenya's northeastern Wajir District. He and his wife and children travel with four other families seeking better pasture - preferably areas that are not infested with disease-causing ticks. The homes the families carry with them are constructed with sticks, thatch, cloth, and worn-out bags that once held relief food. Although Umar said he sometimes received help from family members in Somalia or others to whom he provides teaching from the Koran, traditional safety nets such as these have slowly been breaking down, contributing to growing destitution and poverty in the Horn of Africa region.

"People are becoming more 'I' than 'we' oriented," Abdikadir said. "Traditional systems are collapsing. They are not working the way they used to. I think people are also poorer. The ones who would have helped might not have enough now to help their relatives."

Drought has the effect of exacerbating such trends, increasing the divide between rich and poor, inflaming conflicts over diminishing resources, and driving nomadic people toward a more sedentary and urban way of life. But drought is not the only hardship faced by pastoralists in the Horn of Africa: poor roads and communications, the absence of basic services, fragmented markets, little or no economic diversification, and insecurity are all symptomatic of chronic neglect and a lack of investment. Making matters doubly worse, the reimposition of the ban on the import of livestock from the region by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in September 2000 has had a devastating effect on livelihoods.

In this web special IRIN looks at the legacy left by three years of drought in the Horn of Africa, bringing a focus on the lives and hopes of pastoralists in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, who are still struggling to recover in the aftermath of last year's crisis. It looks at the ways those affected by the drought are working to rebuild their lives, and examines how the aid agencies are helping people to overcome some of the difficulties obstacles they face. In the aftermath of the drought, in this web special IRIN also takes a look at measures being adopted to tackle some of the factors which are thought to have exacerbated the crisis of last year - measures such as the inter-agency initiative sponsored by the UN Secretary-General to mobilise collective action to eliminate the chronic food insecurity that has dogged the Horn of Africa for a generation.