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East African Leaders Discuss Ways to Fight Drought


At a summit in Kenya this week, East African leaders discussed how to deal with a regional drought that has put an estimated 11 million people in danger of starvation. Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union are the latest to pledge emergency aid to Kenya, areas of which are hardest hit by the drought.

For the heads of state, ministers, and other African officials operating under the seven-nation Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, the major topic of discussion was the drought and how to prevent people from starving.

The IGAD region covers Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. It has a population of about 170 million people, about 80 percent of whom rely directly on agriculture for their livelihoods.

More than 40 percent of the region is classified as arid, receiving less than 350 millimeters of annual rainfall, while a further 25 percent is semi-arid, receiving a maximum 700 millimeters of rainfall a year.

Because the region is so dry, one or two inadequate rainy seasons are enough to decrease water supplies, wither crops, kill livestock, and cause other devastation. That is what is happening in many areas of the region, especially in northern and eastern Kenya.

But drought in itself should not necessarily lead to mass starvation. Speaking at the summit, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni pointed out the folly of how food in parts of Uganda and other areas of the region are purposely being destroyed while people in other parts are dying of starvation.

"It is paradoxical that while parts of the region are being ravaged by drought, in Uganda, for instance, we are pouring [out] 80,000 liters of milk every day for lack of markets and four million metric tons of bananas are rotting every year for the same reason," he said. "This is not logical. Our destiny is definitely in our hands."

President Museveni blamed poor or non-existent markets for the destruction of surplus food, and called for more intra-regional trade so surplus food could be transferred to deficit areas.

In other cases, poor transportation networks prevent food from being easily or quickly delivered to drought areas, while in some instances, farmers would rather sell their surplus food to private agents, who offer higher prices than governments.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called for IGAD countries to work together to create conditions favorable for economic and social development.

Swedish developmental aid official Annika Sode supported President Kibaki's call, saying that the African leaders were ultimately responsible for the IGAD region's fate.

"The destiny of this region and of Africa rests in the hands of the Africans," she said. "Your message that you want to take the responsibility for good government and good governance, for attracting capital for infrastructure, to solve conflicts, to build the culture of democracy, to get rid of corruption and to access markets, that message is a very important one."

However, President Museveni also blamed European and other countries for setting up barriers to international trade. He said these barriers and low earnings for exports from countries in the region have decreased national incomes, making it harder to alleviate poverty.

Some officials pointed to the slowness of IGAD governments in detecting and responding to emergencies brought on by drought.

Louis Michel is the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid. He told the summit's opening session that the region is food insecure and should be monitored closely and responded to quickly.

"This requires the development of rapid response mechanisms such as a Disaster or Drought Relief Fund," he said. "This should go hand in hand with more structural support such as the EC-supported Regional Food Security and Risk Management Program. The IGAD and the EU should join efforts to embark on a regional strategy to address desertification in the area."

Michel's suggestion that the European Union and IGAD should collaborate on a regional strategy to address desertification was one of several proposals meant to stop drought from leading to starvation and other disasters.

Agricultural analysts say much that can be done in dry areas to achieve food security. Terraces can trap moisture in the soil and prevent erosion, ponds can collect rainwater that can be stored in underground tanks, and irrigation systems can provide water to nourish crops.

In their final statement, the eastern African leaders promised to allocate 10 percent of their national budgets to the agricultural sector for such water harvesting projects as well as livestock development and dryland management.

The leaders agreed to set up a regional emergency fund, and called on the private sector and donors to contribute to the fund and provide other aid.

At the summit, European Commissioner Michel said the European Union would donate about $6 million to help Kenyans suffering from the drought, while last week the U.S. aid agency said it would provide $16 million in food aid to hungry Kenyans hit by the drought.

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