Urgent food aid needed to save lives in drought-stricken Namibia

Published: 16 July 2013 9:50 CET

By Alexander Matheou, IFRC

The headline in Namibia’s national newspaper is dramatic: 38 die of starvation in the first five months of 2013, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg as the drought enters its most bitter period.

Such news would normally stir outcry and action, but here the response has been lukewarm. There are two reasons for this. First, Namibia is a stable, middle income country that lacks the aid sector which would raise red flags in other parts of the continent. Second, while the figure of 38 malnutrition related deaths is horrific, it actually represents a decrease relative to figures from 2010 and 2011. In parts of Namibia, chronic hunger is not uncommon in poor households, even in a normal year.

Datilelo is a 45-year-old mother of two children and a carer for two more. Her legs are withered. She drags herself to a nearby marula tree each day where she collects its fallen fruits, scrapes out the nuts and sells them. The children’s diet is maize meal, given once or twice a day.

She doesn’t grow crops, she doesn’t have any animals, and the drought is therefore affecting her as it is so many others, through the gradual erosion of mutual support and solidarity among family and friends who can no longer share the little they once did.

Short bursts of aid would be a respite for Datilelo but it is not a solution to the threat of chronic malnutrition. She is hard working. What she needs is economic empowerment.

But to categorize this drought as a chronic crisis requiring only long-term, poverty reduction interventions would be a mistake that costs lives. The government declared an emergency in May this year for a reason. The drought has – albeit slowly – shattered livelihoods and left people without an ability to meet their basic survival needs.

This becomes evident deep in the pastoralist drylands of north west Namibia, where tribes preserve a way of life that is a global heritage.  

On the outskirts of towns are the recent settlements for drought migrants. Muli is 30 years old. Her livestock died and hunger drove her and her children to a settlement where she seeks casual labour. A local man has offered $20 US dollars if she insulates the roof of his house with cow dung. Muli walks long distances each morning in search of cattle. Bit by bit she has managed to cover half the roof. Her children are anaemic; their stomachs swollen from protein deficiency.  

Hundreds of kilometres away, a school designed for 40 children has become a boarding school for over 112 youngsters, as parents migrate long distances in search of grazing for their cattle. The children sleep on the stony ground outside. The only food available is maize millet.

The sparsely scattered households here belong to the Himba. Their livelihoods depend on pensions, cattle and crops. Two years of failed rains means there have not been any crops. Cattle are either dead or far away in search of water. The Himba cope by reducing the amount of food they eat, from two meals of maize per day to one.  In a typical scene as dusk settles, three mothers stir a small pot of maize over a fire. They explain that only the children will eat that evening.   

Food aid is no solution in the long-term. But right now, for the most drought affected communities in the arid of lands of Namibia, that is just what is needed to preserve life and health until the next rains and harvest.