The Home of Drought

Desert Conditions in parts of the GHA

By Patrick Luganda
Necjogha secretariat, Kampala

Kampala 4th June 2012: The Greater Horn of Africa has become the home of drought and the frequency of drought has drawn global attention to the countries in the Horn, because of the negative impacts caused by the lack of rains, especially famine. In other parts of the world, more severe droughts occur but few deaths are witnessed. But in the Horn of Africa, hundreds of deaths are reported with thousands of people looking to humanitarian assistance for survival.

Failure of rains over two consecutive years in many parts of the Greater Horn of Africa countries, which include Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Djibouti, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania, was a major cause for the latest humanitarian crisis, though the epicenter was in Somalia and Northern Kenya,

Predicting Drought
Scientists usually predict the failure of the rains with sufficient lead time for the affected people and governments to reduce many of the effects of drought. In practice, although the information is available with the national meteorological services, the farming community rarely receives this information on the onset, intensity and cessation of the rains in time.

For example, the Greater Horn of Africa regional climate outlook for the major rainfall season this year indicates increased likelihood of below to near normal rainfall over much of the Horn of Africa region. In plain language, the region is likely to receive below normal rains or just enough rain for crops and animals to survive. This is against a background of insufficient rains in the previous two years. Yet though this information was released at the end of February thousands of farmers have not received it and have had to depend on local indigenous knowledge to plan their activities.

“This climate information is important for planning purposes by farmers, NGOs and governments in the region. The information needs to be widely disseminated to the various users of climate information,” said Professor Laban Ogallo, Director of the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC) in Nairobi.

Releasing the Climate Outlook bulletin at the end of the Climate Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, attended by several scientists and user representatives from eleven countries, Professor Ogallo emphasised the need to rapidly disseminate the crucial information so that it can be factored in the national planning process of the member countries.

However, officials, who refused to be named, say that the dissemination of the information in the bulletins is inadequate and is rarely received by end users in time.

“After the regional outlook, experts met and down scaled the outlook for Uganda for March, April and May 2012. We held a press conference where Hon. Maria Mutagamba, the Minister of water and Environment released the seasonal climate forecast to the media. But more work is needed to get it to the farmers and other end users,” says Mike Nkalubo, Commissioner of Meteorology Uganda.

Elsewhere in the Greater Horn of Africa countries, the tradition has been to disseminate the bulletins through official channels, such as the ministries of agriculture and disaster preparedness, where the information is received by farmers sometimes half way through the onset of the season. Bureaucratic delays in coordinating information dissemination between the meteorological departments and the other line ministries working with the farmers are cause for the delays.

Professor Ogallo insists that things must start being done differently. He argues that although scientists have been releasing early warning information well in time, famine and other disasters have continued to plague the greater Horn of Africa with impunity. “We cannot afford to continue in this distressing situation. Scientists and the media need to supplement existing efforts to ensure that the users of the information get it in a language they understand and in time,” says Professor Ogallo.

Information for Dramatic Change
Dissemination of climate information to users has the potential to dramatically change agricultural and livestock production. Armed with the right information individual crop and livestock farmers could plan where and how to invest their time and earnings in the production cycle.

Judith Akolo, Education Secretary for the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa (NECJOGHA), says training the media to help disseminate climate information is important but needs to be supported. “There are not enough trained reporters in the region and we need to do more to get the messages disseminated to reach the people in time. But the use of radio and other media channels needs funding,” says Akolo.

Recently, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) sent out an international appeal for $50 million to cover the funding gap for priority agricultural and pastoral activities that must be carried out in the Horn of Africa before and during this planting season, which coincides with the rainy season from April to June. One of the activities that would greatly benefit from such funding is massive dissemination of climate information in local languages over radios and written pamphlets distributed to communities in the rural areas.

Already the Climate Outlook for March, April and May for the region indicates poor performance of this major rain season: this is building on the accumulated rain deficit experienced in the last two years in the region. Unless handled judiciously, there could be a repeat of previous food shortages in the region.

Urgent activities planned in the region by FAO include distributing crop and vegetable seeds, helping implement small-scale irrigation schemes and running cash-for-work activities to restore vital agricultural infrastructure. Livestock-oriented activities include supporting fodder production and initiating or stepping up vaccination campaigns. However, in order to make communities in the region less dependent on perennial international assistance, information on how they can live with frequent droughts is crucial.

Meanwhile, international organizations including FAO, the Red Cross and FEWS Net are already taking advantage of the climate information for contingency planning to build the ability of communities to survive the next cycle of shocks. However, governments in the region must pay more attention to building resilience of communities through timely early warning information dissemination because the frequency of droughts will most likely become a conspicuous phenomenon.

“We can't avoid droughts, but we can put measures in place to try to prevent them from becoming a famine," said Jose Graziano da Silva,Director General of FAO on a recent visit to Somalia.