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Drought Ravages East Africa


The drought ravaging the East Africa area is having a severe impact on millions of people. Experts note a steady decrease in rainfall amounts, over the past few years, and say it will take a while to recover.

For at least three seasons now, Kenya's northeastern district, Wajir, has had a fraction of the rainfall that is normally deposited in the area.

To survive the rugged arid and semi-arid conditions, herders usually move from place to place, taking their cows and other livestock to where there is water.

That is no longer the case. There is almost no water anywhere in Wajir.

Brendan Cox, spokesman with the Kenyan office of the British aid agency, Oxfam, describes to VOA what he witnessed during a recent trip to Wajir, where he says about 90 percent of the population depend on livestock farming for a living.

"The situation is really horrific there. The air is full of the stink of the dead and rotting animals. The borehole is surrounded by dead and dying cows and sheep and even camels," he described. "But also now, you're beginning to get humans dying, not in large numbers at the moment. The number of schoolchildren in the school had plummeted as people roam further in search of pasture for their animals. The remaining children who were still in the school couldn't concentrate because of the stink of the dead animals in the air."

Wajir, other districts of northern and eastern Kenya, southern Somalia and parts of Ethiopia fall within the worst affected areas of a drought that is ravaging East Africa.

According to the U.S. government's Famine Early Warning Systems Network, rainfall totals for the year in East Africa ranged from 20 to 60 percent of normal, with the March to May long rains virtually non-existent.

The effects of the drought are also being felt in Eritrea, Djibouti, Tanzania, Burundi, southern Sudan, Uganda and Rwanda.

Experts report that eastern Africa has experienced poor rains for six successive years.

Samuel Mwangi is senior meteorologist with the Kenya Meteorological Department. He explains that, in the highlands of East Africa, there can be more than 1,000 millimeters of rain a year, while arid and semi-arid places such as Wajir receive about 200 millimeters a year.

But, he says, in the season of short rains from October to December, only about seven millimeters fell in Wajir.

Mwangi says it will take awhile for the region to recover from the drought.

"If the rains came even today, you'd still need to even feed people who depend on agricultural products for quite some time until the crops mature," he said. "But, once the good rains come, the recovery is quite fast - in three, four, up to maybe six months. Then people would be back to their normal livelihoods. But, in terms of building [live]stock, this takes a lot of time."

Rainfall is needed to revive pastoral lands and nurture crops.

Rainfall also recharges lakes, rivers, wetlands, forests and other dense natural vegetation, where water is stored and slowly released back into the air.

An expert in the U.N. Environment Program's Division of Early Warning and Assessment, Christian Lambrechts, explains that heavy deforestation and other forms of degradation leads to the environment being less able to absorb the effects of droughts, making the droughts more severe.

Lambrechts says that, a century ago, about eight percent of Kenya's land was covered with forests; now, only 1.7 percent of forest lands remain.

"So, clearly, if we start playing with those ecosystems, if we start basically diminishing our ability of helping coping with a dry season, clearly we are going to reduce the ability of those ecosystems to provide the normal services, and as such we might have a full collapse of everything which are depending on those services, which is what we are seeing now in northern Kenya," he said.

He says he has noticed similar patterns of degradation across East Africa.

The drought has resulted in failed crops, higher food prices, and a decrease in the quantity and quality of livestock.

Poverty is intensifying. In the Bakool area of southern Somalia, some families are reported to be spending up to 80 percent of their income on water. People sometimes have to walk for hours to find water.

The United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 11 million people in the region are, in its words, "on the brink of starvation" because of the drought and non-weather-related factors, such as conflict.