Watching the current drought unfold in the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia – that has so far left thousands dead and more than 12 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, we are forced to question how this devastating situation has occurred once again. Following the 1984 Ethiopian famine, the world promised to prevent future crises from occurring.
However, despite organisations such as HelpAge and Oxfam warning of an impending drought as far back as the end of 2010, on 20th July 2011 the United Nations declared a famine in southern Somalia.
Why was this famine not prevented? What can be done to mitigate some of the effects of drought and to avoid future crises from taking place?
Today we live in a world where, as a result of climate change, unpredictable rains and extreme weather conditions are commonplace. Access to water is becoming increasingly scarce, and a rising global population is placing even greater demands on this limited resource. As the drought in the Horn of Africa starkly demonstrates, water scarcity in semi-arid areas – in this instance in the form of two consecutive failed rainy seasons – can leave thousands food insecure and often results in internally displaced populations and the heightened risk of diseases that accompany them.
In 2010 the United Nations declared access to clean water a fundamental human right. National governments are therefore responsible for putting into place effective safety nets to ensure that water provision reaches all and that droughts and famines are avoided. In spite of governments having committed to halving the proportion of people without access to water by 2015 as part of the Millennium Development Goals, and numerous developing countries – including Ethiopia and Kenya – having signed up to the Sanitation and Water for All initiative, investment in infrastructure projects has thus far clearly been insufficient. Political will for tackling the water crisis is not sufficient and water is, without doubt, not high enough on the global political radar.
Governments must learn from this tragedy and must prioritise investment in long-term solutions to water shortages. Disaster risk reduction strategies such as early warning systems must be implemented, innovative water capture and storage methods must be explored, and budgetary commitments must be delivered upon.
Improving access to water will allow drought-vulnerable populations to become more resilient in terms of food security and sanitation; they will no longer be forced to sell their livestock immediately nor to move away from their homes in search of food and water, thereby reducing their chances of contracting diseases that are often present in camps. Affected populations and civil society organisations should lead demands for better water provision to prevent future crises and as a means of reasserting their human right to water.
One way End Water Poverty partners and members can participate in such calls is through participating in campaigns including Crisis Talks and the World Walks for Water and Sanitation 2012. These events will raise the political profile of the water crisis and will encourage key decision makers to attend the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting that is taking place in Washington, April 2012 and to deliver firm actions.
As African governments and institutions recently emphasised, we must unite and speak with one voice to prevent such disasters recurring.