Drought in East Africa: narrowing the margin.

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Nat Paynter, our Director of Water Programs, has spent the last few weeks in East Africa, monitoring our work. He writes us after spending some time in the devastated Horn of Africa, where the UN says about 12 million people are at risk of starvation from this year’s drought. Here’s Nat’s take:

From Lira, Uganda

As I write this in central Uganda, the streets outside are thick with mud, miring trucks and people. Uganda is almost through the rainy season here, with maize growing strong, healthy cattle grazing and farmers busy preparing to harvest their crops in a few months.

Some 800 miles to the east, the situation is painfully different. Several failed rainy seasons have developed into a full-blown drought, and famine has followed closely behind. Along with the rest of the world, staff at charity: water have been following this situation as it worsened, wondering what we can do to alleviate the suffering in East Africa. charity: water has always worked to bring potable water to people all over the world, from the jungles of C.A.R. to the altiplano of Bolivia. This past July, charity: water approved a grant for nearly $1 million in drought-stricken Turkana, Kenya, to bring water to 45,000 people. A good start, but this drought has made it blazingly clear that we need to preemptively address drought- prone areas, rather than react when droughts strike.

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As news of the famine spread, the global community began responding. Water, food, shelter and medical supplies are moving to the refugee camps along the Somali border. Unicef, the I.R.C., Oxfam, Action Against Hunger, Save the Children, the World Food Programme and many others have sprung into action to bring relief.

This response work is critical, but it’s important to remember that this disaster need not have become a catastrophe. What shifts it from an environmental disaster to a human catastrophe is humans. The Kenyan Member of Parliament from Turkana, Mr. John Munyes, reported that deaths among his constituency were not caused by a shortage of food, but by a “lack of logistics.” The Somali militant group Al-Shabab has been restricting access to humanitarian aid for their own purposes. The food is available, the water is available — it’s just not getting to the people who need it.

I believe that one of the defining characteristics of development is a widening margin between comfort and catastrophe. In much of North America, Europe and parts of Asia, that margin is wide and stable; reinforced with the social structures we don’t even see — infrastructure, readily-available health care, credit, food security, etc. In much of the developing world, that margin is vanishingly small. One failed crop, one illness, one job loss can push people from living to struggling to live. Each of these disasters — drought, followed by constriction of aid, followed by overcrowding of camps — further narrows that margin of safety until it disappears altogether, and catastrophe follows.

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“We can’t predict where the next earthquake will come, but we have a pretty good idea of where and when drought will strike.”

We know drought will come. Drought is a fixture around the world; Russia and Australia have had severe droughts, and the American Midwest recently went through a drought far worse than it experienced during the Dust Bowl. This was a hardship, but not a catastrophe. The challenge then lies with how we plan for and mitigate droughts’ impact in the developing world. How do we keep it in the realm of “disaster” without tipping into “catastrophe”? If the job is done well, can the margin be widened enough so that drought becomes a “hardship”?

Frankly, we — the NGO community — don’t have a very good track record on this front, as we spring from disaster to disaster. We can’t predict where the next earthquake will come, but we have a pretty good idea of where and when drought will strike.

This current drought in East Africa did not appear overnight, but has been a long time in the making. Had the global development agencies invested sufficiently in water programs earlier, this drought may not have become a famine. Therefore, before the next drought strikes, we need to start investing in the drought-prone areas of the world. We know it’s coming, and we need to get ready.

We can never forget that hundreds of millions of people need water every day. They may not be suffering from drought now, but they still struggle to provide their families with clean water. The rains are falling in Lira this year, but that’s no guarantee rain will fall again next year.

This is the constant water crisis.

For every person who gets sustainable water, that margin between comfort and catastrophe gets a bit wider.

– Nat Paynter
Director of Water Programs
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