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Does Deforestation Contribute to Drought in Horn of Africa?

Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai says the drought putting millions of people at risk in her country is due in part to deforestation. She says the loss of forests because of logging and deteriorating environmental conditions has contributed to the problem in Kenya, as well as other countries in the region.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says millions of people are at risk of starvation in the Horn of Africa due to drought and the effects of conflict.

Dr. Razi Prabhu is regional coordinator for eastern and southern Africa for CIFOR, the Center for International Forestry Research. From Harare, he spoke to English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua about whether deforestation contributes to drought.

Prabhu says, “In my opinion it would be highly unlikely that deforestation in Africa in the Horn would contribute to changes in the precipitation regime that is in rainfall patterns. Because I think these are larger cycles, I doubt very much the deforestation is going to affect that. However, during droughts, forests have, and we’ve seen this in southern Africa, a really important role in providing a safety net function, subsistence function, for the poorest of the poor. So they go to the forest for food, medicinal plants, all sorts of things. This is their last reserve when there’s drought. And I think in that sense, Wangari Maathai is very right in calling for a stop to deforestation. In fact, she’s been at the forefront for reforestation. And if this is done properly then I think it offers a lot more resilience in landscapes which are affected by drought.”

If there’s a lack of trees, is the land unable to retain water during rainy seasons? Prabhu says, “It really depends on what other kinds of vegetation cover you have. So if you have bush and grass there certainly will be a lot more retention. It also depends on what type of engineering you’ve got in landscapes.”

While trees help the ground retain water, they also use a great deal of water themselves. Much of deforestation is not only due to logging, but agriculture. The CIFOR official says a study is underway to consider the benefits and consequences of clearing forests for agricultural use. He currently calls it “a mixed bag” depending on how it’s done.