Develop me: Can we blame the Horn of Africa drought on lack of rain?


Somalia is faced with what has been described as the worst drought in 60 years.

Reports suggest that thousand of lives have already been lost and millions more will die unless the begging bowls are filled up with cash.

Indeed the pictures coming out of the Horn of Africa are quite harrowing and money is really needed to avert a human catastrophe.

Assessment reports from the Horn of Africa suggest that the drought in Somalia is a result of failed rains, but Steve McDowell, a food security expert based in East Africa offers an interesting view that seem, to have evaded many, especially those involved in development and humanitarian work in Somalia.

He argues that pastoral communities have lived and flourished in the Horn of Africa for hundreds of years. During that time, rainfall has fluctuated. It is unlikely that rainfall alone can explain the current humanitarian crisis.

In fact, if we examine rainfall patterns over the last 100 years, there are peaks and troughs spread over 10 or 20-year periods.

Current rainfall levels are the same as 60 years ago, with a period of very high rainfall in between. As with the current crisis, rainfall fluctuation alone may not explain vulnerability to drought.

As modernisation crept in, population figures started to grow faster.

The natural resource base, which was mainly and perhaps naturally meant to sustain pastoral life, started depleting fast.

Modern methods of farming, though not always sustainable, became their livelihoods’ backbone. For the past 60 years, erratic rains have meant drought, which spells doom for so many. The use of charcoal gave way to deforestation an accomplice to desertification.

When one examines these increasing, changes in livelihoods and resource needs, McDowell implores us to reflect if we are not placing unrealistic demands on the rain that did not exist 60 years ago.

On close inspection, most of the problems for pastoralists today lie not in the levels of rainfall, but in the new demands imposed on people’s lives by modernisation, growing the gap between changing demands and the ability to meet those demands.

Today, when pastoralism is facing unprecedented challenges to provide even a subsistence livelihood, the modern world is presenting opportunities that decades ago were unimaginable.

When I was in Kunene region in Namibia a few weeks ago, I drew comparisons between the pastoralists in Somalia and the Himba tribe in the northern part of Namibia.

Like the Somalis, the Himbas are pastoralists and survive on beef and milk alone.

Unlike the Somalis, they have resisted and still resist to be transformed into modern life and for that they have been called primitive for their stance.

But others like me prefer to leave them alone. They are rarely affected by droughts like their Somali counterparts because they live their own lives based on their natural capacity.

They have become one of the key tourist attraction features in Namibia contributing 14,5% of the Gross Domestic Product.

Kunene is generally very dry as it lies in the semi-dessert terrain in what was previously called Kaokoland.

The Himbas are still nomadic, they and their cattle look quite healthy even when I didn’t see any green leaf in the thorny semi-desert forests. I could only assume that their cattle belong to the drought resistant breeds.

The Himbas still live on meat, mainly beef and milk, and somewhere somehow you get the sense someone is pushing them to grow maize and other cereals despite the geographical and climatic environment not being conducive for such ventures.

They grow them anyway, perhaps just to be part of the mainstream.

Some harvest while others don’t but still it doesn’t matter because it is not the absence of maize that worry them most but the death of their livestock should the water run dry.

Over the years they have survived on their livestock, digging precariously very deep wells along the dry sandy rivers just to ensure their cattle can drink water.

By their definition, drought is not the lack of rain to feed their crops, but the scarcity of water for their cattle and a little bit of grazing.

Fortunately for them, there are springs scattered all over the mountains perennially oozing water. And once again, their priority is getting water into the bowels of their cattle before they take a human sip. In fact, they get the water value from their milk. And for that they have been spared by the emaciating droughts like those faced in the horn of Africa today.

Now, should the push for crop farming succeed in Kunene, should we blame the rains when there is a drought? Perhaps this is one of the inconvenient truths about development planning especially in the presence of limited knowledge about a local environment.