Drought Brings the Horn of Africa to the Edge

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A young man from the Turkana tribe in northern Kenya stands on cracked and dry ground in 2009. . Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

From March to May, the countries that comprise the Horn of Africa rely on the "long rains" to replenish water supplies and rebuild goat herds, ensuring a supply of milk and meat.

Increasingly, however, those long rains aren't lasting nearly long enough, if they ever come at all. Four severe droughts over the past 20 years in the region have pushed the region to the edge as those who live there attempt to cope with land that has dried faster in the 20th century than it did in 2,000 years.

"In the future," James Oduor, the head of Kenya's National Drought Management Authority, told The New York Times, "we expect that to be normal — a drought every 5 years."

Broken cycles of livelihood

Goats are a valuable commodity as they can be sold, milked and butchered for meat. For the poorest in the region, goats are the best way to thrive, but with droughts reducing access to water and reducing feeding grounds to dust, goats can't reach weights necessary for selling, consume enough water or milk or be worth butchering.

A grandmother named Mariao Tede told the Times that she once had 200 goats, plenty for her needs, including buying cornmeal for her family, but the 2011 and 2017 droughts have reduced her herd to a meager five goats. Not enough to sell or eat, and with a lack of ran, not enough to get milk from.

"Only when it rains I get a cup or two, for the kids," she said.

Tede, like many, has turned to other sources of work for income. She relies on making and selling charcoal, a process that involves stripping the land of what few trees are left. Fewer trees means that even if rain comes, it's not likely to stay in the earth and help vegetation. In short, droughts have reduced the ways people can survive even in the event there isn't a drought.

A village down the road from Tede's is no better off, despite the presence of a water pump. Another shepherd, Mohammed Loshani, had 150 goats a little over a year ago, but only 30 are left. After, the 2017 drought, he lost more than 20 goats in two months.

"If these droughts continue," Loshoni said, "there's nothing for us to do. We'll have to think of other jobs."

And like Oduor said, this is almost certainly the new normal for the Horn. He keeps a postcard-sized, color-coded map of Kenya that neatly outlines the dangers droughts pose: dark orange for arid zones, light orange for semi-arid zones and white for the remainder.

More than three-fourths of the region is some shade of orange, indicating that they're already struggling for water when there isn't a drought.

"The bigger part of my country is affected by climate change and drought," Oduor said. "They're frequent. They last long. They affect a big area."

Climate change at it again

Recent studies bear out Oduor's concerns.

Some scholars have taken a longer view. A 2015 study published in Science Advances. This study analyzed the marine sediments to determine the rate of drying in the region, and concluded that it was doing so faster than it had in 2,000 years. The drying of region is "synchronous with recent global and regional warming," the study concluded.

A 2017 study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society connected recent droughts in the region with both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and higher land temperatures in the Horn. Both are attributable to human behavior. The severe weather disruptions that result from these shifts in climate, the study concludes, can result in "protracted drought and food insecurity" — which is an accurate depiction of the Horn.

As the Times reports, more than 650,000 children under age 5 across vast stretches of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are severely malnourished; famine is a very real concern in those three countries, and, according to the United Nations, at least 12 million people rely on food aid in the region. Shepherds routinely clash with one another over livestock and water, while some women in northwestern Kenya are walking seven miles a day just to get water.

The effects of droughts aren't just limited to the the Horn, either. South Africa's western cape is in the grips of a drought that is expected to reduce its agricultural output by 20 percent this year, a cut that will harm both exports to Europe and the use of wheat in the area. Meanwhile, the country's second largest city by population, Cape Town, may run out of water by late summer, depending on if it rains and how well residents follow water regulations.