East Africa’s drought: A catastrophe is looming

Governments are at their wits’ end to keep their hungry people alive

Published on The Economist, by , Sep 24th 2009.

THIS year’s drought is the worst in east Africa since 2000, and possibly since 1991. Famine stalks the land. The failure of rains in parts of Ethiopia may increase the number needing food handouts by 5m, in addition to the 8m already getting them, in a population of 80m. The production of Kenyan maize, the country’s staple, is likely to drop by one-third, hitting poor farmers’ families hardest. The International Committee of the Red Cross says famine in Somalia is going to be worse than ever. Handouts are urgently needed by roughly 3.6m Somalis, nearly half the resident population (several million having already emigrated during years of strife). In fractious northern Uganda cereal output is likely to fall by half.

Parts of South Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic and Tanzania are suffering too. Rich countries are being less generous than usual. The UN’s World Food Programme says it has only $24m of the $300m it needs just to feed hungry Kenyans for the next six months …

… The high price of food and water is making governments more disliked. The price of maize-meal has more than doubled since 2007. Jerry cans of water, which is often filthy, cost four times more than a year ago. With luck, governments may be forced to improve their management of water. Villagers may be persuaded to build terraces to stop topsoil running off. Dams need better maintenance and desilting. Officials should be shamed into stopping their friends from stealing or wasting water. As the cost of diesel power soars, schemes for renewable power and plans to link the region’s power grids may be speeded up. High prices have encouraged some industries to find their own solutions. An Indian cement firm, Sanghi, says it plans to run a new Kenyan cement factory on its own hydroelectric power.

Amid the gloom, a few companies and countries have benefited. Shares in the Kenya Power and Lighting Company have risen this year in expectation of more demand. The main Kenyan power supplier, KenGen, has sold bonds to finance a scheme to expand its output by 500MW. Malawi, which periodically suffered famine until a recent fertiliser-subsidy scheme came good, is to export maize to Kenya.

The drought cycle in east Africa has been contracting sharply. Rains used to fail every nine or ten years. Then the cycle seemed to go down to five years. Now, it seems, the region faces drought every two or three years. The time for recovery—for rebuilding stocks of food and cattle—is ever shorter. And if the rains fail before the end of this year, an unimaginably dreadful catastrophe could ensue. (full text).

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