Archive for the ‘To Be or Not to Be? – by Gwynne’ Category

To Be or Not to Be? – by Gwynne

September 7, 2011

Drought is one of the serious challenges and threats facing sustainable development in Africa. A drought can be defined as a naturally occurring phenomenon of prolonged and severe water deficit. Deficiency caused by drought results in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. The underlying cause of most droughts can be related to changing weather patterns manifested through the excessive build up of heat on the earth’s surface, reduction of rainfall, and reduced cloud cover and, increased evaporation rates. Climate change is set to exacerbate occurrence of climate related disasters including drought. 


 Drought has its greatest impact on water supplies. Lack of water affects every aspect of environmental health and human activity, including agriculture, natural areas and development projects. These problems have far reaching adverse impacts on human health, food security, economic activity, physical infrastructure, natural resources and the environment, and national and global security[1]. Africa has witnessed a high frequency of occurrence and severity of drought.


 The most severe consequence of drought is famine. Famine is a symptom of other problems and not a pre existing condition. The severity of a drought is determined by the area’s ability to cope. Thus a rainfall deficit in a sparsely populated region could go unnoticed; but a similar deficit in a heavily populated zone can become a famine if the population is ill-prepared to manage it. This highlights the fact that extreme environmental events though unpreventable can be mitigated.  While there is little that can be done to increase the amount of rainfall or other natural factors controlling the amount of water available it is important to know that droughts are not death sentences for all affected. Vulnerability to weather is a function of preparedness as well as of the event in itself. In essence famine is a man made problem which is avoidable. Mitigation and adaptation is necessary to stave off disasters[2].


 This discussion is relevant because of the extreme drought which is affecting over 12 million people across the Horn of Africa, but the escalation into famine in southern Somalia is blamed on decades of conflict, and a two-year aid restriction by the Islamist Shebab insurgents. Many Somali people have died already with more at risk. The conflict in Somalia has prevented adequate food production, construction of water reservoirs which would mitigate the situation. As noted earlier, the drought occurs naturally but the famine is man made or rather a reflection of a humanities vulnerability to extreme climatic factors. Somalia’s vulnerability is increased not only by the geographic location which makes it susceptible to droughts but the conflict which prohibits any constructive measures to be taken to prevent a famine. There are examples to show that droughts are not necessarily forerunners for famine.


Droughts are often associated with Africa and or developing countries, it is not that developed countries do not have droughts; it is that they are in a better position to cope. Much reference is made to the 1991–92 droughts, which ravaged more than 80% of southern Africa. This example is perhaps more relevant as it from developing countries. Fortunately there was no famine; this was because there was famine preparedness and prompt response on the part of governments in the region to warning signs of famine. The table below shows a number of factors which mitigated the situation.


The presence of food stores is important because, relief assistance does not arrive immediately. In 1992, most of the relief food imports arrived in Southern Africa six or more months after orders were placed. Another important note is in 1993 rainfall returned a normal average allowing food production to return to normal. This negated the prolonged dependence on food aid and or spent supplies.


  • Food imports and food aid, initiation or expansion of public works, and loans to agriculturists all addressed issues of supply and demand – rather than simply relief – early in the crisis (Field 1995).
  • Good rail, road, and communications infrastructure within the SADC facilitated delivery of food from the distribution centres.
  • Advance procuring of grain through market channels not only helped to provide food before aid arrived but also helped to avoid the precipitous price drops often associated with sudden arrival of vast quantities of food into drought-stricken regions.
  • Food also reached needy populations before they found it necessary to leave their homes.
  • In addition, most food-distribution programmes were implemented through market channels, and rural works projects prevented collapse of rural markets during the crisis.
  • Maize subsidies were lifted in Zimbabwe and Zambia during the relief effort, to increase producer incentives at a time when large supplies of foreign maize would otherwise have driven prices down (Callihan et al. 1994).
Source: United Nations University website: The relationship between drought and famine.


African countries have many pre existing problems that prevent an adequate response to environmental crises; poverty, weak institutional capacities, and challenges in resource mobilization, weak information base, and inadequate access to affordable appropriate technology. In war torn countries such as Somalia all these are moot points until a cessation of the conflict allows for development of institutions that would enable the positioning of coping mechanisms. It has been shown that even with a handicap African countries can have drought monitoring, early warning and drought risk management that can be utilized to avoid catastrophes. Drought policy has to be based on a long-term understanding of both climatic patterns and the changes in human settlement that have made the impact of drought so much more serious in recent times. The dependence of most African economies on rain fed agriculture emphasizes the importance of drought early warning products for short- and long-term decision making in various sectors of the national economies. This is because whether a famine is to be or not to be is dependant on human factors.


[1] Summary of the fifth international conference on community based adaptation 28-31 March 2011

[2] See The day after tomorrow.  Environment and Humanitarian Disasters in Africa.Green Compass Research