Drought: A Society’s Last Call For Help

Our Earth | Courtesy of businessinsider.com

It’s an Apocalypse! It’s a Nuclear Bomb! It’s a World-wide Pandemic! No. It’s Global Warming! Well, you might just be right. How might the world end? Climate change could well be the leading cause of the decline of many of earth’s life-forms. Global warming plays a crucial role in twenty-first century climate change, because it makes the temperatures of the atmosphere hotter. This is due to greenhouse gases being emitted largely through carbon dioxide, which is the result of burning carbon-based fossil fuels in quantities far greater than the environment can absorb. The greenhouse effect essentially makes the atmosphere thinner, allowing the sun’s heat to reach the surface of the earth more than previously. That’s a big problem. The effects of global warming are devastating to our environment, particularly to the longevity of human existence. In the near future, we could run out of clean water sources, leading to numerous natural disasters. One such natural disaster has been taking place in the region of East Africa for a number of years, and conditions there are only getting worse.

What is happening in East Africa? Most inhabitants there are suffering from drought: a scorching heat is leading to decreasing water and food supplies.  Obtaining a constant water supply is a challenge for much of Africa. Many lands receive little rainfall and even larger areas have irregular rainfall. Inhabitants store up and save water as much as possible, in case of prolonged absence of rain or insufficient rainfall. The east coast of Africa near Madagascar has a tropical rain forest climate, and has an average annual rainfall of about seventy inches, but the east desert area of Horn receives only about ten inches annually.1

Temperature measurement 1880-2020 | Courtesy of oxfam.org

And the countries of East Africa are in desperate need of assistance and much of the population there live on the verge of starvation. The worst drought-affected areas are enduring massive famines. Their crisis may even intensify remarkably in the coming months of March and April, 2018, when they typically have low rainfall. The current drought in East Africa is directly linked to the climate change caused by global warming. This drought is already being considered worse than the one in 2010-2011, which affected millions and led to the deaths of more than 250,000 people. East Africa’s drought is going on its third year, and the current year is presently the worst year yet. The last rainy season occurred in the months of October, November, and December 2016, which had alarmingly low levels of rain. And at the beginning of 2017, the climate was drier and hotter than usual. In the chart shown, seven out of the last ten years have had severe droughts in East Africa due to lack of rainfall, and during the rainy seasons of the months of March through June, there has been much less rain than usual. Also, temperatures are increasing throughout East Africa, and are continuing to go higher.2 

Not only has drought raised the level of disaster, but governmental policies, belated international action, and poverty have contributed to the inhabitants’ inability to get help and improve their lives. Farmers are especially at risk because of their dried out lands, little to no advantage of economic safety when their crops and animals die, and careless governance. It makes the chances of the next drought becoming even more dangerous, after not being able to recover from the previous drought. Very hot temperatures mean that the moisture in the soil evaporates, leading to drought, and making the chances of rainfall go down, which have even made rivers go dry. And if it gets hotter, then droughts will become even more frequent.2 

An overview of East Africa indicates that in 2017, the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya are expected to lack safe drinking water for about fifteen million people. The emergency aid for food and water has doubled recently to more than half the population. Famine is approaching the lives of these people and malnourishment is already taking place.4 

In 1975, the International Food Policy Research Institute was established to find solutions to poverty and famine. This group has been conducting research on the conditions of East Africa, and it has been communicating with its populations to improve agricultural outputs, build nutritional programs, improve trade, and strengthen local governments. Agriculture in the countries of Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Tanzania accounts for more than fifty percent of these regions’ gross domestic product, but it accounts for less than thirty percent in the other eastern countries of Kenya, Eritrea, and Madagascar, mainly because these arable lands are much smaller than the others. Eritrea has the least agricultural land. The production of crops there depend on the rainfall, topography, and soil types. Much of these soil types are likely to erode and have poor fertility. Farmers here face increasingly harsh conditions as the hotter environment enhances the effects of harmful weeds and pests. The results are devastating. A farmer’s harvest and livestock efficiency is affected, costs of crop production go up as availability of fertile soil goes down, and farmers’ incomes diminish.5

The last drought of 2011 left twelve million people with food insecurity, and these numbers are estimated to become worse in the months from May to June, with the low rainfall forecast. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) stated that three continuous years of drought has resulted in diminished food supplies and has lowered people’s ability to cope with another shock, while increasing refugee numbers and spreading disease. In February 2017, Sudan declared a famine, the first country to do so since 2011. United Nations agencies state that an estimated five million people are in need of urgent care. In the famine of 2011, 258,000 people died in Somalia alone, and more starvation is expected soon. In January 2017, Ethiopia’s government and humanitarian partners started the Humanitarian Requirements Document, which has sought nearly one trillion dollars of aid to assisted its people with emergency food. Also in February 2017, Kenya declared its drought a national disaster and used up to $208 million of assistance from UNOCHA. South Sudan declared a famine, and with it brought in relief and financial assistance from around the globe. Both the UK and US have contributed aid to East Africa. The UK gave South Sudan and Somalia aid packages worth $120 million each, and the US has given about $855 million to the Horn of Africa in 2016, and again in 2017 has given about $182 million in relief. Even though this aid has helped East Africa with food and water, the preparation and response still have a lot of room for improvement.6

Dead fish in drought | Courtesy of sustainababble.fish

What is worsening the East Africa drought crisis? Global Warming. This continent, and particularly East Africa, is the most affected region in the world by global warming. It is predicted that East Africa’s temperature will increase 5.4 to 7.2 degree Fahrenheit by the year 2080. Global warming has brought it droughts, floods, and severe famine. Currently, these situations have made the region of East Africa prone to epidemics, starvation, and increasingly frequent drought. The poverty in these areas constrains the ability of the inhabitants to recover and cope with the results. Harvests have declined due to the absence of rainfall. Global warming has caused most of East Africa to struggle to gather and maintain fresh, clean water supplies. It makes the countries who already suffer from poverty harder to do just this. Global warming makes climate change unpredictable and drastic when it finally takes place. In the rainy season sometimes there is little rain, but sometimes it brings too much rain, lead to flooding of the area and then threats of water borne diseases, like the cholera outbreak in 2008 that killed over 1,000 people. Due to global warming, it is estimated that by the year 2030 East Africa will suffer the highest death rates on earth.7

Politics and global warming are both linked together. Somalia and Sudan’s political conflicts are linked to global warming. The first debate started in Sudan about climate changed that led to a conflict in the UN Security Council. Water shortages and different rainfall patterns led to altercations on water supplies and farmland that can end in human rights abuses and even war. From this political side, it also brings out citizens participation in movements. For example, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Waagari Maathai of Kenya, who founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which concentrated on planting over thirty million trees to improve and conserve the environment and life.8

Food scarcity due to climate change | Courtesy of eabjournal.com

Another topic that helped fuel the drought in East Africa is the scarce rainfall. A study was conducted in Kenya to gather rainfall variability and drought characterization data. The variability of rainfall was shown to be high in the rainy season and also the number of rainy days was found to be high as well in the eastern countries of Mozambique and Kenya. There was also expected high chances of drought, a 67 percent chance, that would last more than fifteen days in Mozambique and Kenya. The crops’ growth depends on the amount of water in the soil from the rain. It is important for farmers to have this, because their success or failure in agriculture mainly relies on rain-fed crops. Areas like Kenya’s highlands are drier and have more unpredictable rain patterns. Even though it receives high amounts of rainfall, it is often distributed over the land poorly, and often rainstorms have led to crop failure from the plants suffering from too much water and powerful winds. On the other hand, droughts lead to crops suffering from water stress, which is where the transpiration process becomes intense from heat and lack of rainfall. There will be high probabilities that the soil will dry up due to evaporation. Farmers will need to select crops to plant that are drought resistant, like sorghum and millet, so that their chances of crop loss are lessened. Also, if the farmer has knowledge about the duration of droughts and possibilities of scarce rainfall, it can help him plan for occurrences when there is a high need for water.9

There are several types of droughts. A meteorological drought is caused by hot temperatures and high winds when changes in weather happen. This type of drought imposes wildfire hazards. An agricultural drought happens when a drought is long enough to create extreme soil water deficits that damages crops. Side effects of this drought targets low quality crops, especially when there is soil nutrition erosion. But there are many choices of crops that tolerate droughts. It is up to a farmer to choose a crop that can either be harmed by or resist an agricultural drought. Another drought is a hydrological drought, which occurs when precipitation decreases and affects the land and subsurface water supplies. In other words, hydrological drought is caused from lack of water. This also affects crops in agriculture. Lastly, a socioeconomic drought happens when the supply of services like water, food, hydroelectric power have diminished. Farmers are the first to suffer losses because they rely on agricultural productivity. A result from this drought is that consumers may have to pay more for their products. When economies are suffering from this drought, monetary costs are being made to cover for failed crops, insurance, and damage. Unfortunate consequences are linked to famine, health problems, and even political and social conflicts. 10

African native children | Courtesy of hrw.org

Every part of the world experiences climate change, but Africa has more of a drastic climate because it is so close to the equator. It causes food shortages, which in turn causes malnutrition from not having the specific food needs met and even starvation because there is not enough food to go around for the large population that inhabits East Africa. Because the temperature increases, it is harder to be successful in agriculture. Prices of the goods rise. It makes it economically unbalanced because East Africa is already in a state of poverty so the rise in food prices contributes to a poor lifestyle. Climate change plays a crucial role in any adjustments made to the economy and the lives of the people.11

East Africa | Courtesy of lizardpoint.com

Throughout many years of this natural disaster, East Africa is learning how to advance and cope with the situations they are in. The people of these countries are cutting back on deforestation and improving the management of water sources. And with these improvements to the country, East Africa can become it’s own leader in environmental change. Since the majority of the continents depends on rain-fed agriculture, the people count on the climate variability to help them grow fruitful crops or inevitably their crops fail because of poor climate predictions and lack of rainfall. The inhabitants of East Africa cope with the drought by monitoring the drought development, which provides seasonal forecasts. This monitoring is tough for them because many of the countries are still developing their technology. These climate season forecasts provide only a broad spectrum and brush only the surface detail of the seasonal rainfall. Therefore, it’s unable to give detailed information that is relevant for the agricultural planning and adaptation.12

Groups have also emerged, like the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS-NET), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS), which all gather reports on local markets, observers, and remote sensors to have an outlook on the problem areas and come up with resolutions. Another way East Africa copes with drought is by satellite remote sensing. The satellite measures the hydrological cycle on the land and can see, with high spatial resolution, the state of the vegetation and agriculture. Unlike the technological data, the satellites are very well developed and their data is more correct. From all the way up in space, there is also observations all the way down to the ground. The Soil Moisture Ocean Salinity (SMOS) senses the soil moisture and with it uses the soil index. This system also uses vegetation data in the area to construct a model after using the soil measurements. And with this model, they will be able to see how dry or wet the soil is and see if it is affecting the plants.12

All the factors feeding into the drought cannot be ignored. With the fast damaging effects of global warming, they only have a matter of time to resort to solutions. East Africa carries such a big load on its shoulders and it shouldn’t have to because this is a world effort to make earth cleaner and we have the choice and power to make our lifestyles eco-friendly. It not only helps East Africa, but the whole world.14

  1. Leon L. Bram, Africa (Chicago: World Book Inc, 2017), 1.
  2. Oxfam, “Drought in East Africa:.” Drought in East Africa: “If the rains do not come, none of us will survive” | Oxfam America. October 25, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/stories/drought-in-east-africa-if-the-rains-do-not-come-none-of-us-will-survive/.
  3. Oxfam, “Drought in East Africa:.” Drought in East Africa: “If the rains do not come, none of us will survive” | Oxfam America. October 25, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/stories/drought-in-east-africa-if-the-rains-do-not-come-none-of-us-will-survive/.
  4. Oxfam, “Drought in East Africa:.” Drought in East Africa: “If the rains do not come, none of us will survive” | Oxfam America. October 25, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2017. https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/stories/drought-in-east-africa-if-the-rains-do-not-come-none-of-us-will-survive/.
  5. Michael Waithaka, East African Agriculture and Climate Change: A Comprehensive Analysis (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2013), 1-12.
  6.  Stephen Wainaina, “Droughts in East Africa becoming more frequent, more devastating,” African Arguments, March 17, 2017.
  7.  Edward Markey, “Global Warming Impact Zones | East Africa,” The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Accessed November 16, 2017. https://www.markey.senate.gov/GlobalWarming/impactzones/eastafrica.html.
  8.  Edward Markey, “Global Warming Impact Zones | East Africa,” The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Accessed November 16, 2017. https://www.markey.senate.gov/GlobalWarming/impactzones/eastafrica.html.
  9. Fredrick Semazzi, “Rainfall Variability, Drought Characterization, and Efficacy of Rainfall Data Reconstruction: Case of Eastern Kenya,” Journal of Advances in Meteorology 2015, no. 380404 (August 2014): 14-15.
  10. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, November 2017, s.v. “Drought,” by Stephanie M. Herrmann.
  11. Encyclopædia Britannica, December 2016, s.v. “Climate Change,” by Stephen T. Jackson.
  12. Justin Sheffield, “A Drought Monitoring and Forecasting System for Sub-Sahara African Water Resources and Food Security,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 95, no. 6 (June 2014): 861-882.
  13. Justin Sheffield, “A Drought Monitoring and Forecasting System for Sub-Sahara African Water Resources and Food Security,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 95, no. 6 (June 2014): 861-882.
  14. Justin Sheffield, “A Drought Monitoring and Forecasting System for Sub-Sahara African Water Resources and Food Security,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 95, no. 6 (June 2014): 861-862.
Drought: A Society’s Last Call For Help
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