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Issue #1524      26 October 2011

Drought-induced humanitarian crisis unfolds in Horn of Africa

As once again famine stalks grimly through the Horn of Africa, the causes of this catastrophe are the subject of debate. Doreen Stabinsky contends that the underlying cause of the drought that has metamorphosed into a famine is the slowly changing global climate that is drying out eastern Africa.

The last two rainy seasons did not materialise over a major portion of the Horn of Africa. All of Somalia, and large swaths of Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and northern Uganda are now experiencing their worst drought in 60 years.

Climate refugees are streaming from Somalia into camps in Ethiopia and Kenya by the tens of thousands, and international organisations are ringing alarm bells in the media over the impending humanitarian catastrophe.

The drought conditions have most severely affected pastoralists and their animals, with the largest impacts in regions of northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia where over 65 percent of the population are pastoralists. In some areas, up to 60 percent of the animals have already died from lack of water and pasture, depriving herders of their only source of income and food. Agricultural experts predict half a million or more livestock deaths this year.

Pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in the region are increasingly at risk from climate change. More frequent droughts, including a recent drought in 2008-2009, have reduced overall livestock holdings, decreasing the protein and milk available to families. For the animals that remain now, milk productivity is low, contributing further to malnutrition among the affected populations.

To compound the already dire situation, grain prices are skyrocketing throughout the region. Red sorghum in Somalia is now over 240 percent its price from a few months ago. Yellow maize in Jiiga, Ethiopia, costs 117 percent above last year’s price; white maize in northern Kenya 58 percent more.

For those pastoralists and agro-pastoralists who still have animals to sell, due to low prices of livestock and increases in the price of grain, their terms of trade have significantly decreased – the 90-kilogram sack of maize they used to purchase for one or two goats now costs five. Lack of food, animals, or purchasing power is driving tens of thousands of climate refugees to migrate in search of food, water and pasture.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in a report released on June 10, estimates that overall food security conditions across the region will continue to deteriorate in the coming months, with no likelihood of improvement until early 2012 – if the rains return in October.

Present estimates of vulnerable populations are 3.5 million in Kenya, 3.2 million in Ethiopia, 2.5 million in Somalia and 120,000 in Djibouti.

Meteorologists are blaming the drought on a La Nina event – a periodic shift in global precipitation patterns that, among other changes, can dramatically reduce rainfall in eastern Africa (and that is also responsible for the record rains and massive flooding in Australia last year). In some areas, rains have failed for three or more consecutive rainy seasons, which normally occur between March and June and between October and December every year.

The more significant rains of March to June (known as the “long rains” in Kenya and the “belg” rains in Ethiopia) typically bring 40-80 percent of the yearly rainfall. Late, erratic and insufficient rains in these past months have tipped the region over the edge, following on the heels of one of the driest October-to-December seasons ever.

Climate change

But to blame the drought on La Nina is to miss an important underlying cause – the slowly changing global climate that is drying out eastern Africa.

Professors Park Williams and Chris Funk from the University of California at Santa Barbara have been calling attention to the steady decrease in the region’s long rains during the last 30 years (35-45 percent below normal), associated with the steady increase in sea surface temperatures of the Indian Ocean due to increasing global temperatures.

Higher sea surface temperatures have led to changes in precipitation patterns so that rain now falls over the Indian Ocean rather than the Horn of Africa.

Exacerbating the consequences of decreased rainfall is the fact that with higher air temperatures, water evaporates more quickly from land. For this reason, droughts under climate change are expected to be more frequent and more intense – what scientists are calling “global-change-type droughts”.

According to the most recent analysis of the World Meteorological Organisation, the year 2010 was the hottest year on record in Africa. And the five hottest years in Africa on record have occurred since 2003.

The countries in east Africa have seen average temperatures a full one degree Centigrade above normal every year for the last eight years. There can be no doubt that the deepening drought in the Horn of Africa is a global-change-type drought.

Arid outlook

Even more alarming than the millions likely to be affected by the drought before the end of the year is the prediction that droughts like this one will become more common under climate change. As the atmosphere warms further, soil moisture levels will decline.

Scientists expect that the African continent will warm more and more quickly than the global average, with 1.5 times the global average warming expected.

Rainfall is expected to diminish over much of Africa. Moreover, rainfall events are likely to increase in severity – more water will fall in shorter periods of time. Even if a region continues to receive an average amount of rainfall over the year, if the rain comes in shorter, more intense events, more of the rain will run off and less will be absorbed by soils.

So even though the atmosphere will hold more moisture, when the rain falls, it will not necessarily translate into precipitation useful for farmers.

And in the Horn of Africa, according to the University of California research scientists, the drying trend of the last 30 years will continue.

As they concluded in a scientific paper published earlier this year specifically about the human fingerprint on droughts in eastern Africa: “Drier, rather than wetter conditions in the century ahead appear likely. The anthropogenic Indian Ocean warming response appears to be one of the most consistent and well-understood responses to greenhouse gas emissions. This anthropogenic warming appears to have already significantly altered the earth’s largest circulation feature and impacted its most food insecure inhabitants.”

Third World Resurgence   

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