Worst African drought in 60 years

07/05/2011 14:12

NewsScientist:  Ahmed says the FAO repeatedly issued warnings about the effects of La Niña, but that few contingency plans were put in place. That is why there is a shortfall of about 40 per cent in the money needed to tackle the crisis, the FAO claims.

"The main issue triggering the crisis is the drought," says Ahmed. But other factors are playing a part, including conflict in the area, especially in Somalia, which has generated thousands of refugees. Then there are increases in food and fuel prices. "Pastoralists currently have to sell five goats to be able to buy a 90-kilogram bag of maize, compared to one to two goats in January," says Stephanie Savariaud of the UN World Food Programme.

According to the latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, those in need of assistance include 3.2 million people in Ethiopia, 3.5 million in Kenya, 2.5 million in Somalia, 600,000 in north-east Uganda and 120,000 in Djibouti (see map).
Pastoral problems

The biggest problems, however, are in those parts of Somalia and Ethiopia where around 65 per cent of the population are pastoralists, making their living by raising and grazing livestock. Many animals have died of dehydration, depriving people of their only source of income and food. Ahmed says a lack of investment in roads and market centres has meant pastoralists have been deprived of a route to prosperity, which would insulate them from climate extremes.

Data collected by the international Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS-NET) run by USAID show how tough the drought has been. By comparing rainfall totals from the past year with historical data from 1950 to 2011, the network has shown that 2010/11 has been the driest or second-driest year in 11 of 15 pastoral zones in the affected region. "The current drought is severe, and its impacts have been exacerbated by extremely high food prices, reduced coping capacity and a limited humanitarian response," concludes the FEWS-NET analysis.

The severity of the drought is also reflected by satellite data analysed by David Grimes of the University of Reading, UK. He says that rains have failed for three successive rainy seasons in the region. Two should occur each year, between March and May, and October to December, with April the main month for rainfall.

"Normally, you would expect around 120 to 150 millimetres of rain in April," says Grimes. "But our satellite data show that it's probably only been around 30 to 40 millimetres in April this year."

Grimes says that La Niña is a main contributor to the current drought, but other climatic factors are involved too. They include higher sea surface temperatures over the Indian Ocean, which can lead to greater rainfall over the sea rather than on land.

The biggest fear now is that rains will fail in the next rainy season too. "One concern is that there is no sign of a switch to El Niño, and thus little prospect of compensation through above-normal rains in October through to November," says Dan Williams from the UK Met Office, who added that it was not possible – yet – to say if this drought is a result of climate change. The Met Office is researching this aspect, he says.

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