By Alexander Matheou, IFRC, regional representative for East Africa
Throughout October and into November, good rains have reached much of the arid lands of the Horn of Africa, and it is now possible to talk about the end of the drought. It is far too early, though, to talk about the end of the crisis. There are many reasons why we should sustain our commitment even as the drought recedes from the headlines.
Firstly, recovery takes time. Water availability has improved. There is pasture for grazing. Animals are returning, and with them access to milk from sheep, goats and camels. Vegetation is growing. There are labour opportunities due to harvesting. All of this is good news.
Yet for many, livelihoods have already been shattered. The Ministry of Livestock in Kenya estimates that a nearly of quarter of a million animals have died in Kenya alone. Without enough animals, nomadic farming families will remain unable to meet their basic household needs, even with the return of good rains.
For many people this drought only made a chronic situation worse. They will continue, resourcefully, to eke out a living in urban peripheries, but with their options painfully limited by lack of sustainable access to clean water, health care and sources of income.
It is these chronic challenges that the humanitarian community must now engage with: recognizing that good rains provide the best environment to invest in agriculture, water harvesting and water storage. We must also understand that if the solutions were simple, they would have been implemented long ago, and therefore actions need to be innovative, evidence-based, and at a scale that will actually make communities safer when the next drought comes.
A second reason for sustained commitment is that, with the rains come new threats of flooding and water contamination. Malaria cases are rising, as are acute watery diarrhoea, dengue and, of most concern, cholera. There is a need for chlorination of shallow wells and for safe water storage to mitigate the spread of these waterborne diseases among an already weakened population.
A third reason is that the refugee crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better. The Dadaab camp was the focal point of global attention during this summer’s crisis and considerable resources were invested in supporting the thousands of Somali refugees that registered each week. Then just as services were scaling up to meet the growing needs – two dramatic events changed the nature and possibilities of the response. A series of kidnappings in Kenya, including within the camp itself, sent a clear message that humanitarian organisations, especially international staff, were being targeted, thereby forcing agencies to reduce their presence and operations. Secondly, Kenyan Armed Forces crossed over into Somalia and began operations to clear the border regions of Al Shabab fighters, with the explicit intention of creating the conditions in which it would be possible for refugees to return.
At this point it is impossible to predict how events will unfold: but certain areas for concern are already evident. With scaled down down services and reduced oversight in the camps, it will be much harder to provide essential lifesaving support to refugees. Malnutrition rates remain shockingly high and cholera has already been an issue in two camp sites. Moreover, as refugees perceive Dadaab as a less secure destination, they may head further north, placing additional pressures on the camps in Ethiopia.
If refugees are forced to return to Somalia, there is currently no set up to accommodate their emergency needs. Such a turn of events will place massive logistical, security and ethical challenges on humanitarian organisations.
Our sustained commitment is also vital in recognizing the significance of national organisations and staff. The greatest challenge in responding to the crisis in Somalia, was around humanitarian access. Now this is becoming a key issue in the refugee crisis in Kenya. International organisations and staff find themselves targeted and blocked and unable to mount an effective response; the viability of assistance is dependent on national capacity, and dedication.
Hindering access is not acceptable, but it is becoming part of the humanitarian landscape in East Africa, and the least we can do is to ensure national colleagues are resourced, trained, supported, and as much as possible protected and enabled, to carry out humanitarian services.
The rains may fall and the drought cycle may enter a more normal phase, but the crisis in the Horn of Africa remains complex and will continue. It deserves our attention and commitment.