The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in 60 years, leaving more than 17 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan food insecure. Recurrences of droughts are more pronounced and the region continues to suffer its devastating effects. While this could be worst drought in six decades, the region has suffered a number of serious droughts in between.
In 1973 and 1984, Ethiopia experienced severe droughts, leading to widespread famines. In Somalia, the drought from 1991-93 resulted in the death of 250 000 people, while up to two million displaced. In 2011 and 2012, a severe drought once again affected the entire East Africa_region and affected millions of smallholder farmers and pastoralists.
Human activities, for example deforestation and unsustainable agriculture practices may cause droughts while other exogenous factors such as global warming and climate change play a significant part. The impact of these disasters on communities is high, continuing to rise in frequency and is mostly felt in the agriculture, livestock and food sectors.
Drought induced child malnutrition: Africa paying the price
The most worrisome consequence of drought is child malnutrition. Malnutrition has long-term effect on the life of a child. The body and brain of a child who is undernourished before the age of five cannot develop at its full potential and is at risk of cognitive delays.
An African Union study titled "The Cost of Hunger" indicates that 17 countries on the continent have stunting rates above 40 per cent, and 36 countries have rates above 30 per cent. The countries in the Horn of Africa are among the countries with poor nutrition indicators and as a result, they pay the highest prices of child malnutrition. For instance, malnutrition costs Ethiopia about 4.7 billion dollars, which is about 16.5 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product, and it costs Uganda about 92 million dollars, which is about 3.1 per cent of its GDP.
The economic impacts of droughts have been also heavily felt as it incur costs on farmers and pastoralists who are obliged to spend extra resources for adapted seeds and inputs to safeguard their harvest on impaired soils. Recovering from shocks has been costly for local communities as incessant droughts induced water-borne diseases, hunger, malnutrition, displacement and migration and the feeling of desperateness.
Recognizing the overwhelming effects of drought on the lives and livelihoods of the population, as well as on the national economy in the Horn of Africa, governments, development partners and donors have exerted significant efforts to halt its occurrence. For decades, humanitarian actors have mobilized billions of dollars to avert disasters. For instance, to cope with the 2011/12 drought, they were obliged to mobilize around 2.5 billion dollars, which was far below the expected amount. In 2017, they are appealing even for more resources to avert crises from the drought witnessed in the same region presently.
Evidently, emergency foods, nutrients, water, medicines, shelters and supplies must reach the needy to meet their immediate livelihood, dietary, shelter and health needs. On the other hand, the interventions need to instigate pragmatic actions and investments to halt the recurrent nature of food insecurity and to enhance the resilience of the communities. Whilst addressing the existing challenges, governments and development partners must seek to understand the underlying reasons why the Horn of Africa, unlike other regions, is still struggling to reduce hunger and malnutrition caused by recurrent droughts.
It is not all gloomy and hopeless
Over the last decades, policy makers and development partners at the national, regional and global levels have struggled to find a pathway to end drought effects and food insecurity in the Horn of Africa. In the end, it appears that there are little options than moving from emergency interventions to durable and long term solutions, which target building the resilience of rural communities to protect and build their livelihoods assets, to endure shocks and disasters.
The realization of such strategies, however, requires a common robust system to formulate, implement, coordinate and monitor national and regional strategies and action plans. While we cannot stop the occurrences of droughts, we have the knowledge and technologies to mitigate the negative impacts on livelihoods of communities. Yet, this requires medium to long-term commitments of governments, development partners and international financial institutions.
In order to disentangle this predicament, governments and development partners must understand risk and vulnerability in this region and move towards durable solutions to mitigate the effects when droughts strike again.
One way of doing this is to link emergency to resilience. It is imperative for countries and development partners to create the link between humanitarian aid, as a rapid response measure in crises situations, and medium and long-term development plans. This approach requires untangling the complex humanitarian and development nexus to seek joint humanitarian-development approaches and collaborative implementation, monitoring and progress tracking.
A holistic resilience strategy, based on national development and investment plans, must be in place so as to protect livelihoods from shocks, and to make food production systems capable of absorbing the impact of disruptive events. Such actions empower farmers and pastoralists in modern farming practices, applications of new farming technologies, disease identification and prevention, selection of seeds, postharvest handling and marketing.
Additionally, efforts must be exerted to protect and sustain watersheds and aquatic ecosystems as the foundation for sustainable development._Irrigation systems should be developed for the use of smallholder and pastoralist communities; and water harvesting practices should supplement rain-fed agricultures. Afforestation and reforestation must be a regular practice to nurture the soil, which is the basis for food and non-food plantations. Using climate resilient crops, livestock and fodder varieties help to resist and recover from droughts.
Building effective early warning and early action systems
Appropriate disaster prevention and reduction measures must be taken based on reliable and timely information. The availability of accurate data is increasingly vital to enable decision-makers to identify, plan, prioritize and implement appropriate responses. Setting up or strengthening the Early Warning Systems and Early Action Institutions and a coordination mechanisms for interventions at national and sub-regional levels are crucial. Weather forecasting and food security monitoring and reporting systems at national and community levels must be strengthened to allow policy makers, pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, crop farmers and fishermen access and use of early warning information to protect their livelihoods assets.
There are socio-cultural and economic ties and relationships between the rural populations of the sub-region, whose livelihoods are largely dependent on livestock and cereals. Thus, drought leads to large migration of livestock and people across borders, often causing conflicts. It is also observed that movement of food from a food-surplus country to the other food-deficit country hit by drought is often inhibited by national laws.
A market approach in the sub-region advocates to mitigating the negative impacts of drought on food security. A sub-regional approach allowing free movement of food facilitated by legislature and support institution is required. Moreover, the setting up of a sub-regional emergency food reserve for the sub-region could go a long way to make food available to countries in the case of emergency on cost basis or refund in kind.
*Patrick Kormawa is FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and FAO Representative to the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.