Drought and Famine in East Africa: An On-the-Ground Report

Andy Schaefer[1]

These past weeks the news has been saturated with images of hunger-ravaged refugees streaming in from Somalia to camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.  The Dadaab camps in Kenya receive an average of 1,300 new arrivals daily and the more than 20 year-old camps, which were built to accommodate 90,000 people, now swell to over 400,000.  Getting life-saving assistance to the exhausted, frightened, and famished new arrivals is critical, but as agencies move to do this work we must not forget the impact that these arrivals will have on the host communities surrounding the Dadaab camps.

The evidence of drought is everywhere. A Catholic Relief Services (CRS) team drove from Dadaab to Garissa the other day and we saw so many rotting animal carcasses that we lost count. Each mile, whether you looked to right or to the left, you’d see evidence of someone who lost some of their animals, a vital component to the sheer survival of pastoralist families. Some of the carcasses had been picked over by scavenging animals and those animals that were still alive were completely emaciated.  The trees are also picked over. There is not a leaf or fruit in sight. There is no vegetation on the trees. There is no vegetation on the ground. The landscape appears as if it were burned, not by fire but scorched by the sun itself.

The district office in Garissa, which is about 60 miles from Dadaab, told us that they’ve received reports of 680 families abandoning their villages to move to the more populous towns in search of work. In a food crisis, forced migration is a very bad sign. It means that these people have exhausted all their coping strategies in their village and there is no way for them move forward.  This is only the start of the hunger season. Our concern is how much worse will this phenomenon get? We’re looking for solutions to this problem.

The drought has also heavily impacted the villages adjacent to where the refugees are settling. Many of the local residents are of Somali descent. Until the time that the border was closed between Somalia and Kenya in 2007, these nomadic pastoralist communities migrated along the border in search of pasture for their animals. There are close ancestral and familial links between those living in the camps and those living in the surrounding communities. They’re mostly different clans belong to the same tribe. Over the years a symbiotic relationship has developed between the refugees and locals. There is a thriving marketplace where each group exchanges goods and the presence of numerous humanitarian aid organizations has also helped to boost the local economy.  This positive ripple effect, however, only reaches the villages closest to the camps.  The farther you get the less the positive impacts are felt.

Host communities see first hand the assistance that the refugees are receiving: food, medical care, water, and education. This creates a huge problem of perception. They often ask, “Why are we not also receiving these items when we also need the help?” In many regards they’re absolutely correct. The women and girls in host communities have to walk 3-5 hours a day to collect water, when the women of the camp get their water from the camp-provided borehole. Can you imagine a girl of 14 pulling a 40-pound container of water in the sand for several hours? It’s hard enough to run in the sand let alone transport water that might be half the weight of an adolescent girl.

The drought and the influx of people have everyone scrambling for the limited resources in the area. There are almost half-million people competing for the same sources of water, land and firewood. As an act of solidarity we need to be with the refugees and work to meet their unique needs, but we mostly all work to meet the pressing needs of the host communities. History has shown us that if we don’t imply the do no harm approach, address the needs on all sides and look at the whole picture, it can become a recipe for a flashpoint for conflict. It’s now a question of finding a balance of meeting people’s needs without damaging their relationships or causing greater degradation of the local environment.

While we work to meet the needs of the influx of refugees, it is incumbent upon us to also meet the needs of host communities.  We must not forget that they’re also suffering the devastating impact of this drought.  To not address their needs could create an imbalance and a resentment that could have devastating repercussions.

While visiting with host communities these past few days our team has been really impressed by the reaction of the locals.  The message that has been circulating is that they realize the need of the newly arrived refugees and they are willing to help to the extent that they can. At the same time they’re also looking at things from a longer-term perspective. They want to assure that their own livelihoods aren’t sacrificed in the process of getting assistance to the refugees. The local communities have created committees and are actively engaged in the process of finding solutions that are appropriate and will meet their current and future needs. They aren’t looking for handouts; they want to work through this as a community. They just need some support to get them through this. CRS and other aid organizations can be part of that solution. To me that’s the silver lining under the grimmest of circumstances.

[1]Andy Schaefer is the Technical Advisor for Emergency Coordination on the CRS Emergency Response Team. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

To support Catholic Relief Services efforts to address the emergency in East Africa, visit its East Africa Emergency Fund and join the prayer for East Africa.

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1 Response to Drought and Famine in East Africa: An On-the-Ground Report

  1. Anonymous says:

    ok, we want to talk to you Andy Schaefer, please call me becuase people are not moving here as they supposed to but is because info seems to far to be real, we need ground breaking news more personal and direct to our emails in Parishes and groups in San Diego California

    please contact me!!! 😉

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