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Death Stalks Millions in Drought-Stricken Areas

International aid officials say they will be severely strained during 2001 to meet the needs of millions of Asians and Africans for food, safe drinking water and protection from disease resulting from some of the worst droughts in recent years.

Eye in the Sky

Starvation, malnutrition, and water-related diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis A, malaria, and diarrhea are expected to increase in at least a dozen sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South Asia countries as they continue to experience scarce rainfall. "Women and children are particularly vulnerable," says Bettina Menne of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In addition to the ongoing droughts, Menne and other WHO officials blame the bleak predictions on continued deforestation, overuse of wilderness areas and the conversion of green lands to desert.

"As environmental changes increasingly impinge on human health on an unprecedented and global scale, we are becoming increasingly concerned with the consequences of desertification and drought," says Roberto Bertollini, director of the Division of Technical Support and Strategic Development in WHO's regional office for Europe.

The causes of the current extreme dry conditions are not clear. Some scientists blame human activities such as deforestation and global warming. Others point to evidence of horrific droughts that have occurred naturally throughout the world during the 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age.

Earlier this year a study headed by Dirk Verschuren, a scientist at the University of Minnesota and the University of Ghent, Belgium, warned of a "very high probability" that another such catastrophic dry period will grip tropical Africa again within the next 50 to 100 years, and could last for decades.


Whatever the cause, droughts are currently spreading misery among millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. Some 28 million face severe food shortages as a result of prolonged drought and civil strife, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The situation is most critical in eastern Africa, where the agency says 20 million people will require assistance well into 2001.

UN officials warn that massive food imports will be needed to prevent starvation in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan. Large areas of Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania and Djibouti are expected to receive lower than average rainfall during the current agricultural season. In Eritrea, where some 340,000 are believed suffering from the drought, harvest prospects are even bleaker because hundreds of thousands of farmers have been displaced by the war with neighboring Ethiopia.

Severe scarcity of water and pasture in Kenya has resulted in the loss of large numbers of livestock, mainly in the northern and eastern parts of the country. Poor harvests are anticipated in some areas of Somalia due to erratic and insufficient rains. According to one UN report on Somalia, "serious malnutrition rates are increasingly reported, reflecting diminished livelihoods due to a succession of droughts and longer-term effects of years of insecurity and lack of investment in the economy."

Erratic rains in Sudan have "severely affected the 2000 crop production," says the UN. "Serious food shortages have already emerged in a number of districts, with food prices more than double the average prices for the time of the year.


Severe drought is also affecting more than 60 million people in Central and South Asia, according to the UN's Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a special task force set up to deal with such emergencies. Especially hard hit are Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and Iran, which have suffered "significant losses" of livestock and crops, and deterioration of health and sanitary conditions in affected areas.

Drought-stricken Afghanistan, suffering from 22 years of civil conflict and a collapsed economy, has been singled out by the UN committee as "the greatest cause of concern" due to "enormous" food deficits and severe shortages of safe drinking water.

Tajikistan, believed to be the region's second most affected country, is expected to produce 30 percent less wheat than last year. In Pakistan, drought affecting two provinces is considered to be one of the worst in the country's history, with about 2.2 million people and 16 million livestock affected.

Almost 50 million people in India have been affected by drought in two states. The government has adopted emergency measures and is providing relief assistance, hoping that the arrival of the rainy season will slow the ravages of the drought and help with the country's immediate water needs.

In nearby Iran, 18 of 28 provinces have been affected by the drought. The government estimates that 60 percent of the rural population in the 18 affected provinces, and 12 million people in urban and rural areas, are experiencing shortages of potable water.

"Immediate donor response is critical to prevent this devastating natural disaster from causing greater loss of life and livelihoods" in Asia, says UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Carolyn McAskie. "The generosity of the international community is vital if we are to contain the current crisis and avoid a tragedy."

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More Information
• A drought is a period of abnormally dry weather that persists long enough to cause a serious imbalance, for example causing crop damage and water shortages.
• Researchers have linked the collapse of the world's first great empire - the Akkadians in Mesopotamia - to a 300-year drought that started about 4,200 years ago.
• Droughts also have been blamed for the disappearance of several pre-Inca civilizations in South America, as well as the Mayans of Central America.
• A recent U.S. government study showed that droughts as severe as that of the 1930s Dust Bowl have occurred as frequently as twice per century over the last 300 to 400 years.
• Some part of the United States is affected by severe drought almost every year. Drought typically causes about as much economic damage as floods and hurricanes combined.

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Pestered by questions from reporters about the continuing drought in his country, a frustrated African head of state recently blurted out, "I can't make it rain."

While Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi may have thought this should be obvious to anyone, some scientists believe that humans do, in fact, affect the weather - and not just by making the planet warmer. Some believe that people are helping to create droughts by cutting down trees.

Researchers at the Center for Global Change Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have concluded that deforestation in coastal Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire may have caused droughts that have plagued West Africa during the past 20 years. Further deforestation in the region "could cause the complete collapse of the West African monsoon," according to the study's principal author, Xinyu Zheng.

A statistical model developed by Zheng found that as forests are lost along the coast of Africa, coastal rainfall will no longer be recycled to create rain inland. Zheng says these predictions appear to be confirmed by the observable fact that since 1970, after three decades of heavy deforestation, rainfall over all of West Africa has been lower than before.

"It does not absolutely prove that the drought has been caused by deforestation," says co-author Elfatih Eltahir, also of MIT. "In the real world, it is quite complex. The appearance of drought is a result of so many factors that are interacting. This study shows that change in the forest area is an important factor to consider."

Another finger of blame is pointed by Kenyatta University geography professor Michael Bernard Kwesi Darkoh, a leading authority on desertification.

"The droughts and famines that have swept over Africa in the past, and which are likely to strike again, are not sudden natural disasters," says Darkoh. "Nor are they simply caused by lack of rainfall. They are the end results of a long deterioration in the ability of Africa to feed itself, a decline caused largely by mistakes and mismanagement - both inside and outside the continent."

Darkoh quotes Lloyd Timberlake, author of Africa in Crisis, who wrote that Africa has "taken too much from its land. It has overdrawn its environmental accounts," and the result for much of the continent has been "environmental bankruptcy."

MIT's Eltahir says that the part of the earth in which humans live - the biosphere - "is not just a passive component of the climate system. It plays an active role."