La Niña-induced drought “to affect millions”

Since November, East African countries have registered serious drought conditions that are likely to worsen in coming months. According to data recently released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the La Niña weather effect is largely responsible.

WMO said the phenomenon might last up to four more months and emphasized that it was already possible to notice “some very dry parts of eastern Africa” amid harsher weather conditions than normal for this time of year.

La Niña is the name given to the cooling of the surface of the central and eastern Pacific Ocean that occurs every two to five years. It keeps East Africa drier than usual and sparks food-security concerns in areas lacking irrigation, including parts of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

Kenya and Somalia are among the countries already affected. “Some areas in the North are a disaster right now,” said Mohamoud Duale, director of the NGO Rural Agency for Community Development and Assistance (RACIDA). In northern Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale and Samburu districts, at least 150,000 people urgently need food aid, most of them women, children and the elderly.

Duale was in Nairobi for the media briefing, Drought in Kenya: When will it ever end?, sponsored by Oxfam, Cordaid, Care International, Save the Children, VSF-Belgium and Reconcile.

The assistant minister in the Kenyan Ministry of State for Special Programmes, Mahmoud Ali, was also at the event and stressed that the government was providing food assistance to one million Kenyans while the World Food Programme (WFP) was distributing food to another 1.6 million people.

“The total population affected by the La Niña phenomenon is about five million people, hence the need to provide food to an additional 2.4 million persons,” he added. Ali also pointed out that to minimize the drought effects the government had reallocated KSh9.5 billion (US$118 million) to the affected areas, mainly in northern Kenya.

Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN
Officials says at least 150,000 drought-affected people urgently need food aid in Isiolo, Marsabit, Moyale and Samburu districts in northern Kenya

Among the new measures are 57 trucks to assist in the delivery of relief commodities to affected areas, livestock vaccinations, construction of scale pans and dams and distribution of aqua tabs to purify water.

Emergency aid

But, on the ground, people are dealing every day with the drought effects without much change to their situation. “Two deaths from starvation were registered in the North of Kenya recently. People are migrating to Ethiopia or Uganda to survive. It is already a crisis,” said Duale.

Despite being considered one of Africa's leading agricultural nations, drought is not new to Kenya. A drought from 2007 to 2009 led to a spike in food prices and threatened the economy.

In Somalia, water resources and pasture conditions have deteriorated further, triggering more livestock migration and increasing competition among pastoralists. “River levels are currently below-normal for this time of the year and are expected to further decrease until the next rainy season in April,” according to the Somalia Drought Watch Bulletin January 2011, published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

An estimated 2.4 million Somalis require emergency humanitarian assistance because of civil unrest and food insecurity, according to the UN. Another drought is also likely to increase the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs); Somalia already has an estimated 1.4 million IDPs.

“We have to act first, instead of reacting. There will be more droughts in the future, but they do not have to bring disaster. We need to tackle drought before it starts, not wait until it is too late and people are already suffering,” said Safia Abdi, programme officer at Cordaid.

In Ethiopia, the National Meteorology Agency reported that a “moderate to strong” La Niña phenomenon was likely to continue, potentially until June, resulting in below-normal rains in many areas, except in the west and southwest, where they are expected to be normal.

Tanzania, the second-largest economy in East Africa, is also starting to feel the effects. This week, the government extended nationwide power rationing. The Energy and Minerals Minister William Ngeleja told parliament that rationing was expected to end in January, but falling water levels at hydropower stations had increased the power deficit. Most of Tanzania’s electricity is hydropower-generated. Some lawmakers considered the shortfall a “national crisis”. 

Poor short rains in Tanzania have led to signs of food shortages in some areas, according to Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda.  He told parliament  almost 14,000 tonnes of food from the National Food Reserve Agency would be distributed to 423,530 people in the worst-affected areas. These were identified by the Ministry of Agriculture as the regions of Singida and Dodoma in the centre of the country.