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Water Experts Urge African Governments to Minimize Drought Impact

The United Nations Environment Program Thursday released its second World Water Development Report. It warns that U.N. safe drinking water goals for sub-Saharan Africa will not be met.

Experts spent much of their time answering the question of how government policies, or lack thereof, could have contributed to droughts or their resulting impacts in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and other areas of the eastern Africa region.

They warn that poor management, among other factors, will mean that sub-Saharan Africa will not meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of halving, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.

According to United Nations' figures, more than six million people in the region are in need of immediate food aid in the region because of the drought, which experts say is the worst in years.

Roughly half of those people live in Kenya's northeastern areas.

A freshwater expert with the United Nations Environment Program, Salif Diop, told reporters that while Kenya's drought cannot specifically be related to poor governance, the impact of the drought would have been much less severe if environmental protection policies were formed and implemented.

"Deforestation, the issue of overgrazing, the issue of not stabilizing all those river basins, the issue related to not managing correctly the lakes, all those are factors which are actually aggravating the problem," he noted. "Particularly in the part of Kenya, groundwater should have been one of the areas which, if well managed, could have certainly constituted a source to have at least alleviate some of these impacts."

John Chilton, a water expert with the British Geological Survey, urges African governments to better prepare for droughts.

He says most African countries have extreme variations of water availability within the country, and should be able to plan ahead to reach vulnerable populations when drought strikes.

"One thing that we've done in Ethiopia several years ago is look at mapping water resource availability, and water resource demand, and superimposing the two," said Chilton. "And there's quite a lot that can be done in terms of drought preparedness in situations where government is good and government is looking forward, to isolate the parts of the country that are the most at risk. Mapping these things out systematically is a very good component of drought preparedness."

The experts' comments were part of issues covered in the international report, Water, A Shared Responsibility, released Thursday.

The report says there is enough fresh water in the world. But mismanagement, limited resources, and environmental changes prevent almost one-fifth of the world's people from having access to safe drinking water and 40 percent from having basic sanitation.