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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Drought in East Africa Causes Crisis

Air Date: Week of January 27, 2006

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Endangered Grevy’s zebra at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Disease due to drought is killing some of the only two thousand of this species that remain in the world. (Photo: Barry P. Payne)

A severe drought in East Africa has taken a heavy toll on livestock and now, people are beginning to die from lack of food. Host Steve Curwood talks with Brendan Cox from Oxfam in Wajir, Northern Kenya about the crisis. LOE also speaks with Richard Moller, head of Wildlife and Security at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, about how the drought is affecting wildlife.

Transcript

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

East Africa is currently facing a severe drought. Three years of minimal rainfall have triggered a crisis in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. With shortages of food and water, and the death of livestock, aid agencies are warning that the area could see an epic humanitarian catastrophe.

Joining me on the line is Brendon Cox, the senior press officer for Oxfam International. He’s in Wajir, Kenya. Brendan, what are people there in Wajir saying about how bad this is?

COX: The situation here has come about mainly because of very severe drought. Speaking to people out in Wajir today, I spoke to an older gentleman, who’s around 70, who said this is the worst drought that he could remember. And certainly it’s the worst drought within a generation, within 20 years. The people I’m talking to are saying that these sorts of droughts used to come every 50 years, then they came every 20 years, now they’re coming every five years and they keep getting worse at each turn.

So that’s meant that you have massive failure of pasture, the animals all dying. You’ve got about 70 percent of cattle that have died in Wajir already. I’ve been out today around several watering holes and the area’s just festooned with the carcasses of animals. Cattle have died in the thousands, tens of thousands; sheep are dying now as well, and even camels are dying. So that’s the scale of the drought – when camels are dying you know you’re really into a very serious drought.

CURWOOD: The people in Wajir are nomadic, they’re pastoralists right? They raise their cattle and move essentially to find new grazing land. They don’t farm. So if they’re losing their cattle it means they have no livelihood and no food. What will happen to them?

COX: That’s exactly right. The currency around here is not Kenyan shillings, it’s cattle, it’s sheep, it’s camels, it’s goats. And once those die you have lost everything. People don’t have houses here, they certainly don’t have cars or bank accounts, so their entire assets are their livestock.

I went down to cattle market today. The price of a cow now has dropped to about $3; normally it’s about ten times that at least. People are having to sell, they have no choice. They have to accept humiliating prices or they have to accept the fact that their cattle, their sheep, their camels, will die on the journey back. That means, in either scenario, those people are going to be forced into poverty.

CURWOOD: And at the same time a bunch of people can’t even afford to buy those cattle, those goats, at distressed prices to feed themselves?

COX: Certainly not. No. People don’t have any money, essentially, here now. They’ve run out of all their, what we call their ordinary coping mechanisms, their ways that they deal with these droughts. This is several seasons of rains; this isn’t just one season of rains that’s failed. You have at least three seasons in a row now which have failed, and the result of that is pretty catastrophic. Walking across Wajir today you saw water hole after water hole that have gone dry; some of them haven’t had water in two years.

So what’s happening now is that, yes, there is some food being distributed. I went to a distribution point today where maize and (unintelligible) were being given out to families. But it is too little too late in many of these areas, and the question now is not if people are going to die, it’s how many are going to die.

CURWOOD: What’s the traditional diet there?

COX: The traditional diet here is generally made up of meat of cattle. Generally cattle is the most common animal you see around. People also do, obviously, when they sell their cattle they buy basic (unintelligible), basic cereal in the local market. So that’s the general diet. And obviously, when those cattle die, not only do you not have that meat to eat, you don’t have very much meat on those animals, you’re also not able to sell them. You’re not able to get that money. That means the local markets are closing down, the kiosks where many of these people would buy the supplements that they normally use. And that’s a really catastrophic impact on those pastoralists because they don’t have some of the key supplements that they need in order to feed themselves and their families.

CURWOOD: One of the rainy seasons in Kenya comes back in March. If the rainfall is back to normal how would that help things?

COX: If the rainfall is back to normal then it is going to certainly help, although it will come as a mixed blessing. When the rain comes, if it does come as it normally comes, then it’s quite heavy rain when it does hit. The final cattle who are on the edge of life and death will probably die; they’ll get wet in the rains. They’ll die of hypothermia during the nights, they’re too weak to shrug off the rain, to shake off the rain that will settle on them. Also, many areas will be cut off by the rains so it’ll be harder to get food aid into those areas.

Two or three weeks after the rains you’ll start to see the beginnings of pasture coming up and that will begin to obviously sustain the goats, the cattle, the sheep. And those that have survived, get them back up to the situation where they’re actually usable, where they’re sellable, and where they can produce some meat for the family. However, obviously there is the possibility that by then it’s going to be far too late, that almost all the cattle will certainly have died by then.

CURWOOD: Brendon Cox is a senior press officer for Oxfam International. Thanks for talking with me.

COX: Thank you very much. Take care.

CURWOOD: The drought in East Africa has also left wildlife desperate for water. Elephants are leaving their sanctuaries in parks, and having run-ins with humans. In one park, as many as 80 hippos have died, apparently from fighting over territory as their water holes dry up. Speaking with me from Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya is Richard Moller, head of Wildlife and Security there. Hello, Sir.

MOLLER: Hello, how are you?

CURWOOD: What’s happening in the region just north of you there?


Endangered Grevy’s zebra at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Disease due to drought is killing some of the only two thousand of this species that remain in the world. (Photo: Barry P. Payne)

MOLLER: Basically what’s happening is there is an anthrax outbreak, which is a disease that often appears in severe climatic changes, obviously being a drought or severe rains. In the last month 30 Grevy’s zebra have died as a result. And Grevy’s zebra are of extreme concern to Lewa in that there are only two and half thousand left in the world, of which there are just under 500 on Lewa.

CURWOOD: What’s the relationship between anthrax and the drought?

MOLLER: Anthrax basically lies dormant in the soil, and it will only appear when there’s an extreme climatic change.

CURWOOD: With so few of these zebras, could this drought wipe them out?

MOLLER: I can’t imagine them being wiped out but, having said that, we’re looking closely into a vaccination program whereby we’d vaccinate these animals from a helicopter and dart them from the air.

CURWOOD: What’s going on with the other wildlife there?

MOLLER: Well luckily a lot of the wildlife that lives in the area to the north, those animals are basically not reliant on water. In other words, they get enough moisture from the vegetation that they eat. We’re talking of animals such as Lesser Kudu, Reticulated Giraffe, Grant’s Gazelle, and they don’t have to go to watering spots to water. And it’s believed that the anthrax is being held in the very few watering holes that are occurring in that area.

CURWOOD: What about predators that eat zebra? What danger do they have from anthrax?

MOLLER: Obviously, if they eat a carcass that has died as a result of anthrax then they are now potential carriers. And the predators and scavengers that live in the area – there’s a few lions, not many, there’s a few cheetah, a good population of leopards, and the highest population is of hyena.

CURWOOD: Richard Moller of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.

 

Links

Oxfam International

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

 

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