What can be done to build resilience and prevent another famine in the Horn of Africa?
By Professor Herbert Girardet

Famine has struck once more in the Horn of Africa, created by a combination of bad politics, guerrilla insurgency and unrelenting drought – truly a recipe for human suffering. The haunting images of starving children and desert refugee camps we see on television bring the emergency home to us, and many feel compelled to act. We can help by supporting relief agencies to bring food, shelter and water to the hungry – but can we do more?

Well, we can start by getting a better understanding of what has gone wrong. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner (whose Greenbelt Movement has received funding from APE in the past), has been saying for years that the ongoing drought is clear evidence of the long-term effects of climate change in East Africa. It also contributes to rural-urban migration, with very large numbers of people drifting to the cities, often ending up in squatter camps. But cities, too, depend on healthy ecosystems. City people crucially depend on water supply from rivers, and food supplies from irrigated farmland, so it is important to raise awareness of the connections between environmental degradation and famine.

Says Wangari Maathai, “It is time for Africans to learn that climate change is going to hit Africa very seriously. We are completely unprepared for what is coming with climate change. For over three decades I have been saying that it is important to protect our forests, to protect our rivers, to protect our lands so that we stop soil erosion and preserve our wetlands.” Sadly, this has not happened and now, as Wangari says, “Everybody and everything that is living in this region is feeling it.”

Somalia is worst affected. A region already suffering from low rainfall is further affected by erratic water flows in the rivers running through Somalia, such as the Ewaso Nyiro river, which originates on Mount Kenya, and the Jubba and Shebelle rivers which rise in the Ethiopian Highlands. Dr. Maathai points to heavy deforestation in these areas leading to the loss of rainfall in the East African highlands, as a major cause for droughts.

Deforestation, in turn, is directly linked to growing population pressure. For instance, in Kenya rapid population growth, from some six million in 1950 to 40 million in 2010, has reduced the amount of land available from 9.6 hectares per person to 1.5 ha per person some sixty years later. Similar changes have occurred in Somalia and Ethiopia. These factors are forcing pastoralists to abandon their traditional ‘extensive’ agricultural practices and to take up intensive settled agriculture instead, but often along alongside rivers with erratic water flows.

Illegal Logging: Illegal logging of indigenous cedar trees in the Aberdare mountain region. Illegal logging of indigenous cedar trees in the Aberdare mountain region.Deforestation and loss of rainfall are closely linked: most clouds are formed by evaporation from forests and lakes with the clouds rising over hilly and mountainous areas. They then release this moisture as rain, which falls back onto the land and then flows to the sea via streams and rivers. Loss of forest cover actually reduces the surface area of the landscape. This, in turn, directly leads to reduced cloud formation and reduced rainfall.

Mount Kenya, one of three ice-capped mountains in Africa, has lost 92% of its permanent snow cover in the last hundred years. Jesse Mugambi, a Professor at the University of Nairobi who has been at the centre of global debates on climate change, says that from September to March the rivers that were previously fed by thawing ice from the mountain now dry up completely. “That is how serious the problem is.” Deforestation is causing loss of precipitation and rising temperatures on Mount Kenya. This has contributed to drought conditions in both Kenya and Somalia. The resulting competition for water, and for well-watered pasture and farmland, in turn, leads to conflicts in which the weakest lose out.

 Global climate change from fossil fuel burning in rich countries, is leading to increased localised temperatures. Together with population growth and deforestation it is a devastating mix. Climate scientists fear that within 25 to 50 years Africa’s mountain glaciers could be gone completely unless vigorous action is taken.

APE is closely monitoring how best we can support large-scale tree planting projects in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. Projects already exist that have had significant impacts, for example, the Mount Kenya Trust: National Reserve Reforestation Project’s ‘Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation Initiative’ has planted over one million indigenous seedlings in the Mount Kenya National Reserve with the help of women’s groups in the Embu area. Supplied with training, equipment and seeds, the groups started tree nurseries, which provide saplings to reforest a devastated area of southeast Mount Kenya called Magacha in Irangi Forest. The organisation is now raising funds to continue this initiative and has received support from GEF/SGP/UNDP. The project encourages companies to fund their work which in effect, rebuilds carbon sinks that can help mitigate the effects of carbon emissions caused by business-related air travel.  The company Safarilink for example, offset their emissions for the year 2009 by funding this project.

The Greenbelt Movement, too, is involved in reforestation and agroforestry projects on Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Range, working with local farming communities. Apart from local environmental benefits the millions of trees it plants will absorb hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ameliorating global climate change. This generates carbon credits for the local population, as proposed by the Kyoto Protocol of the UN Framework Treaty on Climate Change.

APE wishes to help people in urgent need right now, as well as supporting long-term measures. With your support we think we can make a big difference!


Professor Herbert Girardet is Co-founder of the World Future Council, and Trustee of APE.



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