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East African Communities Stressed by "Worst Drought in Over Ten Years"

Drought relief experts predict the food situation in Somalia and other parts of eastern Africa will reach famine levels if adequate rains do not come to the region in the next rainy season, which extends from April through June. Nicholas Haan is the chief technical advisor for the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Security and Analysis Unit for Somalia. His group has just returned from an assessment trip to Somalia and other drought-stricken areas.

Haan tells Voice of America reporter William Eagle that drought in southern Somalia and parts of northeast Kenya and Ethiopia is the worst in over 10 years, with malnutrition levels up by up to 25% and crop production at its lowest in a decade.

He says already the competition for water resources is leading to violence between pastoralists and farmers. “One interesting coping strategy of agriculturalists in the riverine area of the lower Juba River in Somalia is they are setting fire to grazing lands to prevent the pastoralists from coming into their area. So, we see resource destruction to prevent pastoralists from coming onto their land.”

When they do not find food or water for their livestock, pastoralists resort to distress strategies. Haan says, “We’ve seen pictures of pastoralists promoting still births of their young and leaving the carcasses behind so the adults have a chance to live. There are also images of livestock so weak that pastoralists will skin them and take the hide, leaving the body behind, because they have to be on the move. These are coping strategies to help make ends meet.” Haan says up to 30 percent of all livestock herds are dying due to a lack of food and water, and that number could more than double if rains do not improve in April.

The government of Kenya and the International Red Cross are beginning programs to purchase weakened livestock, whose market value has dropped by half in the last three months. The cattle are then either slaughtered and offered to the hungry or sold on the market to others with the means to feed them. Other non-governmental organizations are considering cash-based responses that provide people money to busy food and other commodities. Haan says, “The Somalis have an incredible network of moving goods from one place to the next, and if the WFP and other food aid donors are not able to reach certain populations, cash-based responses will make sure the market reaches them.”

Haan says the international early warning system is working and donors are being encouraged to increase their response to the appeals for food aid. In the long run, more effective policy measures such as rehabilitating boreholes will likely be needed.