By Owei Lakemfa
We live in a highly insecure world. However, the greatest source of global insecurity is not ISIS, Trumpism or the nuclear arms race; it is hunger, powered by, perhaps, the most devastating but virtually unreported drought in living memory. As this reality dawned on me, I thought about children going to bed hungry; how do they sleep?Adolescents going to school on empty stomaches; what can they learn? What do you tell a hungry populace; how can they listen?
In 2013, I went to Namibia; the crops had failed that May and the government had declared a state of emergency. I was unaware of the devastation nor of UNICEF’s findings that one third of the population was either severely or moderately food insecure. It was the worst drought in thirty years and the world seemed oblivious. Namibian President, Hifikepunye Pohamba had cried out: “It has now been established that climate change is here to stay and humanity must find ways and means of mitigating its effect.” It did some seem that the world listened.
Today, the situation is worse with the large Kunene Province experiencing no rain in the last two years. Rather than starve to death, some of the inhabitants are selling their livestock and moving to the cities where there are no jobs. The Namibian government is now running drought relief programmes with a new one planned to begin in June.
That same year, I was in Zimbabwe and travelled the countryside from Harare to Masvingo, some three hours drive. Laying prostrate before my eyes were vast farms that seemed empty except for cattle. I thought it was the result of the land seizures, but was shocked to find that rain had deserted large parts of the country for many years. Now, about four million Zimbabweans need food aid to survive the drought. Of course it is not just the humans, but also the ten national wildlife parks are at risk. On May 3, 2016, the Parks Management issued a statement stating: “In the light of the drought … Parks and Wildlife Management Authority intends to destock its parks estates through selling some of the wildlife.”
While Zimbabwe experienced drought, its neigbour, Mozambique was under severe floods, but not anymore; in 2015, drought set in, now the United Nations (UN) says the country needs $100 million for humanitarian aid to check hunger occasioned by drought and internal conflicts. With 28 million people in Southern Africa facing hunger, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, Elhadj As Sy is launching a $150 million appeal fund to begin a roll back.
Ethiopia had experienced severe famine, especially in the 1970s; now it is experiencing a similar tragedy. In 2015, the crops failed and today, 10 million of its 99 million population are facing starvation. Six million of the starving are children, with 435,000 of them, according to UNICEF, experiencing acute malnutrition.
South Sudan is a tragedy, with its self-inflicted wounds which have aggravated hunger in the country with 2.5 million people needing food aid. Somalia is, of course, a worse tragedy having experienced two famines and an unending, fractious civil war which began as skirmishes in 1988. Hunger struts the land, but given the endless conflicts, statistics are hard to come by.
Drought and famine have long planted themselves in the Lake Chad Basin which serves Niger, Chad, Cameroun and Nigeria. The Basin Commission and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Co-operation and Development (BMZ) revealed in a study that Lake Chad shrunk from 25,000 Square Kilometres in the 1960s, to 4,800 Square Kilometres in 2014 while the multi-ethnic population rose from 17 million in 2005 to 38 million in 2016. This is an explosive mix that has led to hunger, armed conflicts, a terrorist recruitment ground, and a relentless population push southwards into Nigeria.
The World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director Ertharin Cousin situates the problem: “Climate change is impacting sub-Saharan Africa. Erratic rains have become more of a reality across the entire continent… Over 95 percent of all agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is rain-fed today. As long as that is the case, we know that when the rains don’t come, the crops will fail and people will go hungry.”
Asia is not in a better shape; 330 million Indians are affected by drought. The country’s Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti on May 16, 2016 told the BBC that transferring water, including from major rivers like the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, to drought-prone areas is now her government’s top priority. The RELIEF WEB gave an alarming summary of drought in South East Asia. Vietnam is witnessing its most severe drought in ninety years with 39 of its 63 Provinces in need of urgent food. The drought in Indonesia began in August 2015 and now, 1.2 million Indonesians need food aid. The Philippines is experiencing its worst drought since 1950; nine of Thailand’s Provinces are drought-stricken; 300 villages in Myanmar are suffering from drought while that in Malaysia continues. The drought in Cambodia began in June, 2015, its worst in fifty years. Now it has enveloped 18 of its 25 Provinces.
Latin America and the Caribbean are also experiencing hunger. Haiti had a fifty percent drop in agricultural production from July–December, 2015. Three million Haitians are experiencing food insecurity with 560,000 in urgent need of food assistance. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that in 2016, 3.5 million people are experiencing drought in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Colombia and Venezuela are also experiencing drought.
Europe is in a far better shape than Africa, Asia and Latin America, but it is also in the danger zone. The worst heat waves since 2005 hit large parts with drought affecting parts of Germany, Czech and France. In 2015, there was a rainfall deficit of 50-60 percent in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Ukraine and Czech. Below the normal rainfall has been witnessed in the southern parts of Spain and Portugal, and the Baltic States. Countries like Netherlands, Belgium and Belarus are experiencing unpredictable temperature.
Severe to extreme drought has affected three percent of the United States with the country witnessing, in February 2016, its driest February since 1895. From 1996, Australia has experienced dry conditions called the Millennium Drought with cities like Melbourne, Canberra, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney having “persistent or periodic drought experiences.” From 2010-2011, it had below normal rainfall in large parts.
The UN is putting together in Istanbul, Turkey, a World Humanitarian Summit in June 2016; the hope is that humanity will begin to seriously address drought and hunger and divert energy and resources to them, rather than to wars and the arms race.
Owei Lakemfa, a former Secretary General of African Workers, is a Human Rights activist, journalist and author.