Feb 082006
 
Authors: Meg Burd

The rains across the Horn of Africa refuse to fall. Baking in the hot sun, what had been predicted as bumper crops begin to wilt and die, depriving the livestock and the people of desperately needed food. Facing malnutrition, widespread disease and potential violent eruptions over the few scant watering holes, emergency response has come slow.

What seems like an outline for a nightmare situation appears to become more and more a reality in the eastern section of Africa as drought ravages areas of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti, putting an estimated 8 million people at risk, according to the United Nations.

"There is a potential for widespread disease, greater malnutrition and the displacement of significant numbers of people," said Ann M. Veneman of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in a press release. "The international community must respond immediately to the need for assistance."

Currently, the drought is already causing a string of crises in places such as Kenya, international news agencies and humanitarian organizations are reporting. Described by officials as the worst drought in 22 years for Kenya, Nita Bhalla of Reuters news service reported 30 people in the country already died, "with dozens more probably also perishing in remote inaccessible areas."

Large numbers of children are being taken to national hospitals and emergency feeding centers in the area. With malnutrition already impacting the region's youngest residents, UNICEF warned that 1.5 million children under the age of five are in danger. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk, notes Bhalla in the Reuters report, due to the fact they are often not able to easily access medical care in far away towns.

Others at risk, such as expectant mothers, are also likely to suffer, "having miscarriages due to diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and malaria which are attacking their weak immune systems" made so unstable by the lack of food and water.

The drought is also threatening the peace of the region, and the fear of relatively stable Kenya turning into a war-torn copy of its nearby neighbor, Somalia, is increasing. "Drought and food shortages in north Kenya are provoking clashes between nomadic tribes, with dozens already killed and violence set to spread unless more relief reaches them," noted Andrew Cawthorne in a Reuters report.

Affected by the drought since late 2005, the cattle herders are seeing their animals perish and wander in search of water and grazing resources. "The nomadic groups of northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia, parts of Sudan and Somalia have a history of fighting over livestock and pasture," notes a report from the BBC, and as humanitarian aid organization Oxfam reports via the BBC, "the drought is increasing tensions" between these groups and leading to violence.

Besides humans, wildlife in the Horn of Africa is also at risk, reports Bhalla for Reuters. In search of water, many of Kenya's elephants are wandering out of national parks and coming dangerously close to human settlements. Tragically, wildlife groups in Kenya are already reporting large numbers of animals dying in the area, with 60 to 80 hippos found dead due to a lack of water, Reuters reports.

Besides these deaths, the impact on animals could also have an impact on the human population as well. "Our biggest concern is that there will be more human and wildlife conflict as more elephants go into these areas and come in contact with unsuspecting residents," said Kenya Wildlife Services spokesperson Connie Maina in the Reuters report.

Currently, aid for this crisis has been sluggish. International response has not taken off in a way sufficient to address this problem. With the UN and UNICEF appealing for emergency aid and $16 million in funding to head off a larger crisis, "there is no time to lose in getting assistance to those in need," UNICEF notes in a press release. However, while places such as Britain have committed aid currently, the response is still not reaching hoped-for levels.

As Ann Veneman of UNICEF said in a statement, "The severe drought may not be receiving the same amount of attention as other emergencies." However, with millions at risk and many already dying or ill, "We must act now to save lives."

Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian.

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