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Devastating East Africa Droughts Caused by Volatile Climate

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A devastating drought is threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions across an enormous swath of land in eastern Africa.  As governments and humanitarian groups seek to alleviate the suffering, observers warn an increasingly volatile climate means that portions of the region are becoming more and more inhospitable.  

The painfully persistent drought stretches across Somalia, Djibouti, southern Ethiopia, northern and eastern Kenya, and northeastern Uganda.  The World Food Program says its latest figures collected after the recent failed long rain season show that 23 million people are in need of emergency food relief, a marked increase from its previous numbers.

The World Food Program is describing the humanitarian situation as the worst in Somalia since 1991, and the worst drought-caused crisis in Kenya since 2000.

Historically, droughts are nothing new to these largely arid areas of the region, and the pastoral ethnic groups moving around these lands long ago learned how to prepare and recover from the normal drought cycle.

But the steady decline in rainfall in the region during the past two decades, combined with more frequent droughts and less predictable rainy seasons, have many worried that the current shortage of rainfall is not an isolated event but rather an indication of a new climate norm for the area.

Emergency relief regional leader for the U.S.-based aid group World Vision, Beatrice Teya, says climate shift in the region is especially alarming.

"The drought is becoming quite common, almost continuous, especially in the Horn of Africa, affecting Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and parts of Uganda," said Beatrice Teya. "Like right now it seems like it is peaking, but it is a continuous problem.  And I think this is the biggest challenge, because it is not giving communities time to recover.

The increasingly hostile climate has left the populations in a bitter struggle, not just against daily hunger, malnutrition, and thirst, but also in an annual struggle to maintain their ancient ways of life.

For the pastoral communities that live in the area, their nomadic cattle-centered livelihood is becoming increasingly untenable.  Analysts worry of the consequences if the changing climate steadily erodes the foundation of these peoples' society.

On Tuesday 32 people were killed, including women and children, during a cattle raid in northern Kenya between pastoral tribes.  These raids are traditionally used as a means of replenishing diminished cattle stocks, and many fear that disappearing water resources and pasture grounds will be the root of increased instability in the region during the coming years.

But some say such skirmishes could be just one of the minor side effects of a much larger long-term catastrophe.

Eastern Africa Environmental Network Deputy Director George Malakwen portrays a possible horror scenario of massive hordes of displaced people with nowhere to go, if the current trends continue unabated.

"We are going to see what I can term as environmental refugees - people getting out of eastern Africa, but I do not know where they are going to go," said George Malakwen. "If this thing is so expansive - up to Sudan, up to Ethiopia, down south - where are they going to go?  That is what we are going to experience here, that eastern Africa is not going to be hospitable to human beings."

This recent round of drought has been made worse by inflated food prices across the affected region.  Food prices in Kenya continue to sit at 100 to 130 percent greater than their normal levels.

It is not just the local East Africans that are faltering under the economic weight of the crisis.  The World Food Program says it projects it will need nearly $1 billion for the next six months to meet the needs of the region.  It says its program cycle in Kenya has underfunded by 92 percent.

World Food Program Spokesman Peter Smerdon says lack of funding combined with the increased frequency of emergency food crises have meant that the deeper-rooted issues in these communities have been allowed to fester.

"What you need of course in all these places is long-term development," said Peter Smerdon. "The difficulty is when you have crises like these, that takes a lot of money to just simply keep people alive, and that is what we have to do at the moment, and we are struggling to do that.  When there is not a crisis, there is not enough money around for long-term development."

Smerdon predicts that things are about to get worse for the region's population in the coming months, though not for reasons one might think.

El Nino storms are expected to bring heavy rainfall to the parched lands beginning as early as October.  Although many, not surprisingly, see the expected rains as upcoming relief, Smerdon says such an outlook is just "wishful thinking."

He says the sick cattle are likely to die from cold in the heavy torrents, whereas the scorched farming ground will be overtaken by floods.  Malaria and cholera outbreaks are also feared.

Malakwen says he too expects El Nino rains to only exacerbate the crisis.

"God forbid, but we are expecting major catastrophes," he said.

The region's residents are learning that such cruel tricks of nature are now what they might have to learn to expect.   

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