Deforestation, Climate Change Magnify East African Drought

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 16, 2006 (ENS) - The relentless drought across East Africa is deepening because of global climate change as well as the continuing destruction of forests, grasslands, wetlands and other critical ecosystems, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) is warning.

Rainfall over the past year has been poor and the recent rainy season of October to December 2005 has been dismal, according to the Kenyan Meteorological Services. Kenya is one of four drought-striken countries that are the focus of concern.

The Kenyan government says the lack of rains for three straight years has left 2.5 million people close to starvation. President Mwai Kibaki has declared the drought a national disaster and appealed for $150 million to feed the hungry.

In Somalia, 1.4 million people are at risk of starving to death, while 1.5 million are suffering in Ethiopia and 60,000 in Djibouti, the UN estimates.

"Drought is no stranger to the peoples of East Africa," said Klaus Toepfer, the executive director of UNEP, which has compiled a number of reports on the state of Kenya’s forests. "It is a natural climatic phenomenon.

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Loggers have stripped the Mau hills of Kenya. (Photo courtesy The Rainforest Foundation)
Toepfer says deforestation of the region is in part responsible for the arid conditions. "What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times. This is because so much of nature’s water and rain supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared," he said.

"These facts are especially poignant when you factor in the impact of climate change which is triggering more extreme weather events like droughts," Toepfer said.

Schoolchildren are taught that clouds and rain are generated by evaporation from the oceans and the seas. The clouds, rising over hilly areas, then release this moisture as rain which falls onto the land and is returned to the sea via rivers and streams.

But Christian Lambrechts, an expert in UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment, said this belief tells only part of the story, and does not mention the vital role of vegetation such as forests in generating showers and rain.

"Globally, something like 62 percent of precipitation occurs over land as a result of evapo-transpiration from lakes and wetlands and dense vegetation, in particular forests pumping water held in the soils, into the air. In comparison only around 38 percent of precipitation is generated over oceans and seas," he explained.

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Women in a drought affected area collect wild greens and feed their children as best they can. (Photo courtesy WFP)
With many children in the parched Horn of Africa eating only one meal each day and livestock dying in large numbers, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) urged donors to provide immediate food aid for 5.4 million people to head off a humanitarian catastrophe.

Last week, the UN aid agency estimated that more than 11 million people are in need of assistance, with food shortages "particularly grave" in Somalia where about two million people need help.

"In all four countries, it is clear that WFP will have to expand its existing operations to drought-affected populations in order to address the increasing needs," said Holdbrook Arthur, WFP regional director for Eastern and Central Africa, speaking in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

"While final figures on the number of people in need of urgent assistance are still being established, donors must respond now if we are going to avert a humanitarian catastrophe," Holdbrook emphasized.

Food shortages are grave in Somalia where about two million people need humanitarian aid. The food situation is also very serious in pastoral areas of northern and eastern Kenya, southeastern Ethiopia and Djibouti.

In Somalia, most of the affected people are in the south. The secondary rainy season or Deyr, which usually lasts from October to December, failed in most of the eight agricultural regions in the south, resulting in widespread crop failure. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns that the forthcoming Deyr crop, about to be harvested, could be the lowest in a decade.

Somalia is headed for the worst cereal harvest in a decade and pastoralists in the south are forced to keep close to rivers and the few remaining green pastures.

WFP plans to feed one million people in Somalia through June 2006, while the non-governmental organization CARE will assist the remaining 400,000.

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Somali women and children search for water and food for themselves and their livestock. (Photo courtesy WFP)
The WFP says about 64,000 metric tons of food aid are needed until June 2006 to feed the population, but so far, only 16,700 tons are available. Immediate response to the WFP appeal is required to avert possible hunger-related deaths in southern Somalia, the FAO said.

In Kenya, crop failure and depletion of livestock herds due to the lengthy drought have led to famine conditions with some deaths reported in the arid areas. The government has called for about $150 million to provide food for about 2.5 million people, almost 10 percent of the population, over the next six months.

More aid is also needed, the FAO said, to provide water for both people and animals, to buy livestock and provide seeds to farmers in preparation for the next crop season.

In Djibouti, severe drought conditions have worsened the food security conditions of large numbers of pastoralists. Nearly 150,000 people, almost one-fifth of the population, are estimated to be facing food shortages.

In Ethiopia, despite favorable harvest prospects for the main season crop, currently being harvested, severe food shortages are being reported in the pastoral areas of eastern and southern Ethiopia. Initial estimates indicate more than one million people in the Somali Region to be short of food.

Over $40 million are urgently required to stave off starvation, the FAO says. The onset of the dry season, from January to March, is expected to worsen the situation. Overall, more than eight million people in Ethiopia rely on food assistance in both relief and safety net programs.

In view of the good domestic grain production in Ethiopia, local purchases for food aid by both the government and donors are highly recommended to support domestic markets, FAO said.

Toepfer urged countries in the region to invest in and rehabilitate their "natural or nature capital" to buffer vulnerable communities against future droughts.

He asked donor countries to back such plans as vital lynch pins for overcoming poverty and delivering sustainable and long-lasting economic development, while taking every possible measure to reduce the emissions of fossil fuels that are forcing up global temperatures.

"Without these combined actions," Toepfer warned, "countries currently again facing water shortages and power rationing will continue to do so into the future with all the misery and economic damage this entails."