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Drought-Stricken Africa Struggles to Avert New Food Crises


From East Africa all the way to the southern most part of the continent, drought has ruined crops, leaving millions of people dependent on international food aid. Cycles of severe weather are expected to continue in Africa, challenging nations to find more effective ways to cope with drought and famine.

While Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, Africa suffers the most when drought strikes. When the rains do not come, people go hungry.

Drought is a fact of life in Africa, according to Henry Josserand, chief of the Global Information and Early Warning System at the Food and Agriculture Organization.

"Historically, it has been the Sahel. The band of countries from Senegal in the west, including Mauritania, and reaching all across Africa eastward to the Horn of Africa," Josserand said. "There is the part where the rainfall is very iffy and it is not unusual to have a bad year. You know, one bad year out of the three is not unusual."

Currently, severe drought is gripping eastern Kenya, southeastern Ethiopia, southern Somalia and parts of Tanzania, and Djibouti - the result of several consecutive poor rainy seasons. The U.N. World Food Program estimates 5.4 million people in the Horn of Africa now face food shortages.

To the west, forecasters say poor rains are expected in parts of Mali and Chad.

If rainfall remains low, drought could also bring misery to a number of other West African countries including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria.

Last year, Niger suffered a severe drought that worsened an already fragile food situation.

In Southern Africa, millions of people in several countries are still dependent on food aid following last year's scorching dry weather.

This, even though the current rainy season has improved prospects for a good harvest this year.

Mark Rosegrant, an expert at the International Food Policy Research Institute, says drought not only creates hunger in Africa, it also directly affects the economy.

"We have done some work in Ethiopia recently that shows that when you have severe droughts, you are not only affecting agricultural production," Rosegrant said. "But because agriculture is such a huge part of the economy and such a big part of employment - that that (issue) depresses income growth throughout the economy. So it can be very devastating when you have these kinds of water-related production shortfalls."

There is heated debate among scientists about the reasons why Africa is so drought-prone - mainly centered around the issue of climate change. Michael Glantz is a social scientist with the US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research.

"We have a continent on which there are lots of droughts," Glantz said. "And it appears that Africa has gone - West Africa definitely - has gone through about a 30-year drying. Before that, it was particularly wet. So the argument is whether the climate that we're witnessing now over the past two decades is part of these decade-scale fluctuations in the climate system? Or is it climate changing because of human activities, putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and stuff like that? We don't know."

And he adds, whether or not scientists agree on this controversial issue, they do agree that the earth has become warmer in the past century. Glantz says with warming comes extremes.

"More droughts, more floods, more variability," Glantz said. "Probably, less predictability. Some people say we are going to go back to normal and it is going to start getting wet again. Personally, I do not believe we should bet on that. If we cannot deal with drought today, we are not going to deal with it any better in 50 years. That is why we really have to understand not just the physical aspects of a drought. We have to understand how society uses and copes with water in their region."

For years, lending institutions and donor countries have invested generously in a range of projects to bring water to farmers - including expensive efforts to set up irrigation systems.

But Mark Rosegrant from the International Food Policy Research Institute says many such well-intentioned projects have failed.

"One is that the sort of basic infrastructure that services irrigation is not in place," Rosegrant said. "Things like roads and communications networks. So when you began to open up irrigation in Africa, you often times had to build the road systems just to get the construction crews into the areas, so that inflates the cost and makes the costs very big. And I do think you have this just more difficult highly variable rainfall regime and relatively poor soil fertility so that the impact of irrigation is not as high - even when you do it right."

Rosegrant also says, in some cases, corrupt governments have simply siphoned off money meant for large-scale irrigation, leaving the projects unfinished.

Critics of such projects say some attempts to help Africa cope with droughts are simply badly designed. Donor countries do not work together, experts often do not share their knowledge and ideas, and in some cases there is no long-term followup.

Another criticism is directed at African governments. Experts and relief agencies say officials need to be more responsible with donor money and stop using food aid as a political tool. They also say African leaders must be more creative in supporting farmers and push for fairer access to world markets.

But Michael Hess from the U.S. Agency for International Development says it is difficult to get African farmers to change how they use their soil, what kind of crops they grow and moving from place to place to plant crops, which can contribute to food crises. He says it could take generations to change such habits - not to mention building the basic infrastructure that can help dry nations build up water reserves.

But Hess says he sees signs of hope in small-scale projects.

"You know, we are seeing rice farmers develop along the Niger River," Hess said. "I saw places where they were replanting trees. And these were women's groups who got together and got the trees and planted them and keep them going. And each family owns one or two trees and they are required to maintain them. And they do. I think if we keep doing that, we can hopefully, we can reverse the reduction of arable land that's happening right now."

The irony is that experts say parts of Africa are water-rich, like the Great Lakes region in Central Africa. But they say to get that water where it is most needed, many factors must come together: money, expertise, better policies for local growers and good governance.