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Drought: how science can help save Africa

In this Monday, April 30, 2012 photo, people walk past a dry seasonal riverbed in the Matam region of northeastern Senegal. Since late 2011, aid groups have been sounding the alarm, warning that devastating drought has again weakened communities where children already live perilously close to the edge of malnutrition.

Rebecca Blackwell/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the villages outside Kaya in northern Burkina Faso, the millet crop withered and died in the devastating drought that swept the country last year, and the farmers were forced to scrounge for food. I found them in the local hospital, where their children were struggling for life.

"We eat only one meal a day," Arzouma Tindano told me. "Sometimes we go to the bush to collect wild leaves."

The wild leaves weren't enough to feed his family. His 18-month-old daughter, Teni, was on the verge of death. They brought her to Kaya hospital, where she was attached to an intravenous drip and a nasal feeding tube. The nurses said it was almost impossible to find a vein in the child's emaciated body.

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The rainfall at Mr. Tindano's farm was less than half of the normal level last year. It was the third major drought in the Sahel region of West Africa in less than a decade, and it triggered one of the world's biggest humanitarian emergencies, with 23 million people facing serious food shortages across eight African countries.

To respond to the crisis, the Harper government sent $57.5-million in aid to the Sahel region last year, and ordinary Canadians donated another $7-million. But these kinds of emergency aid donations might be unnecessary if scientists could find ways to prevent droughts in Africa – a key goal of a United Nations convention on desertification and drought, from which the Canadian government has now withdrawn.

The decision to pull out of the UN drought convention has shocked many people in the African aid sector. "It's a dangerous game to be playing," said an official at Unicef, the UN children's agency.

Joanna Kerr, a Canadian who is chief executive of ActionAid, a leading global anti-poverty organization with its international headquarters in Johannesburg, said the withdrawal from the UN convention will further damage Canada's credibility and voice in Africa. "Wherever I travel in Africa," she said, "people ask me, 'what happened to Canada?'"

In impoverished countries like Burkina Faso, drought has become a chronic phenomenon, and it is difficult to see how the droughts can be beaten without scientific research on issues such as climate change, desertification and overgrazing. Rainfall has declined by nearly 50 per cent in the Sahel since 1954, with disastrous consequences for millions of people.

In Kenya, proud Masai herdsmen watched thousands of their cattle die in front of them in a drought in 2009. They told me that the droughts have mysteriously increased in recent years. They trudged 150 kilometres to the slopes of Mount Kenya in a desperate effort to find food for their cattle, but it was not enough to save their cows. "Every day they die," herdsman John Lenyarwa told me. "We have no hope."

Drought is connected to many of Africa's most catastrophic emergencies. In war-torn Somalia, drought has killed far more children than military clashes or terrorist bombs. When drought turned to famine in 2011, tens of thousands of Somali children perished. More than half of Somalia's entire population were in famine zones that year.

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At the peak of Somalia's famine, I watched malnourished children slip silently into death at a Mogadishu hospital, even as thousands of families continued to arrive at the city's refugee camps to flee the famine. In one hospital room, Khadijo Mumin wailed with grief. The doctors were unable to save her son, Ahmed Nur, who was attached to an intravenous tube. Two of her five children were dead, and two more were on the brink of death, lying weakly in the same room. "I'm losing all my children now," she cried.

In one of the most arid Sahel nations, Chad, the desert is steadily expanding and the rain is disappearing. One of Africa's biggest lakes, Lake Chad, is dramatically shrinking. It has lost 95 per cent of its size since the 1960s, partly because of climate change. The region around the lake was once the breadbasket of the country, but crops have declined by 40 to 60 per cent since the late 1990s.

I talked to Halime Djime, a nomadic camel-herder whose family lost its camels in a recent drought. Two of her four children had died, and her painfully thin daughter, Fatime, was receiving emergency aid at a feeding centre in a village in Chad.

Ms. Djime was bewildered by the increasing severity of the droughts. "I've never seen this before," she told me. "Even when there were no trees, there would be vegetation. This is the first time that the land is all white."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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