Current drought severely affects minority communities in East and Horn of Africa

The East and Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda, is facing severe drought. Unfortunately this is not ‘new’ news because droughts recur at least once a year in this region. What makes this drought peculiar, according to the United States’ Famine Early Warning Systems Network, is that it is the worst in 50 years

The scale of this drought is also unprecedented because it is happening in the midst of a global economic crisis; food and commodity prices are at their highest, governments are unprepared, and local peoples’ resilience has been weakened by previous years’ unpredictable weather patterns.

As with most crises of this nature, and as MRG research has repeatedly shown, vulnerable groups, including minorities and indigenous peoples, are hit the hardest, yet their plight goes largely unnoticed by governments, aid agencies and the media.

In Kenya, where the drought is said to be affecting over five million people, the government has declared a national disaster.

Reports from Minority Rights Group’s partners in the region show that marginalised communities, especially pastoralists, who earn their livelihoods by herding livestock, have been devastated by the drought.

Jane Meriwas, an activist working with the Samburu Women’s Network, a Masaai community-based organisation in Kenya, says that pastoralist communities in Samburu, Isiolo and Laikipia counties are facing a huge crisis.

“Many pastoralists have lost income due to high death of cattle. In order not to lose out, many are selling off their herds, which are fetching them less than the normal market price because most cattle look sickly due to lack of water and pasture,” says Jane.

An adult bull, according to Jane, now goes for about USD200 compared to over USD350 in a normal season. This means pastoralists are short-changed by about USD150 as a result of the drought. The less income the pastoralists gain from their herds means less purchasing power for already inflated commodity prices. Prices of sorghum and white maize, the staple food for pastoralists, have risen by over 200% and 100% in the region respectively.

In Somalia, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance keeps rising by the day; current estimates put it at over 3 million, the majority of whom are women and children.

Although obtaining statistics broken down by ethnicity on how minorities are affected is very difficult, Somalia has repeatedly topped MRG's Peoples under Threat ranking, which rates countries where minorities are most at risk. Minority communities fall outside the clan structure, and therefore outside the protection of the war-lords and militias. But because of social segregation, economic deprivation and political manipulation, in severe environmental crises such as drought, they tend to face harsh consequences as well as being vulnerable to greater risk of rape, attack, abduction and having their property seized.

Minority groups are estimated to constitute one third of the total Somalia population; approximately 3 million people.

Mohamed Mukthar, who works with a media rights organisation in Somaliland says, “The vast majority of southern Somalia is facing a severe shortage of food and water and it is under the control of al Shabaab, who initially had expelled all aid agencies until thousands of deaths forced them to call in aid agencies to help the Somali people.”

Al-Shabaab has enforced a restrictive version of Shari'a law throughout most of Central and Southern Somalia, which is in breach of international legal standards. Harsh restrictions are also placed upon women, who are prohibited from leaving the house alone and forced to wear the hijab. Religious minorities face constant threats of persecution in areas controlled by al-Shabaab. Bantu, Benadiri and Christian communities have all been attacked for practicing their religions.

Aside from displacing people, the drought has also affected school-going children as some schools in drought-hit areas in Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya remain closed. This, according to the World Food Programme, is attributed to the depletion of supplies for special school feeding programmes in some areas like Karamoja, Uganda, while for other regions, children have to relocate with their families to escape the drought.

As the drought bites, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has grim predictions that the region will see an increase in resource-based conflicts as families, particularly pastoralists, fight for the little water, pasture and food that is available. Already, early 2011, according to OCHA, saw an increase in resource conflicts, with some resulting in deaths, in northern Turkana in Kenya, South Sudan, south-western Ethiopia and Karamoja and Teso regions in Uganda.

Benjamin Omunga, a Programme Officer with Urafiki, a community-based organisation in Teso region in Uganda says, “Due to food scarcity, the neighbouring communities of Ngikarimojong (who are pastoralists) have intensified cattle raids and thefts of their neighbouring Teso communities (who are agro-pastoralists, livestock herders who also make a living out of growing food) putting a strain on the improving relationship between the once-warring minority communities.”

With no rains in sight until October, according to weather forecasts, the cumulative effect of the drought and its impact on food security and human life is certain to be severe. Food prices will continue rising and pastoralists will continue losing their herds due to chronic water and pasture scarcity. There is likely to be increased pressure exerted by displacement migrations causing tension and potential violence between migrants and host communities. Conflicts will in turn affect crop production, thereby creating a vicious cycle of poverty, as is already the case in Sudan.

In addition to the short term relief supplies from governments and aid agencies, national governments need to put in place policies and implement programmes that reduce the severity of natural disasters on vulnerable groups, says MRG.

Photo: Nakapiripirit District, one of the five districts that make up Karamoja region. Here pastoralists were migrating their herd in search of water and pasture toward Teso region, in Eastern Uganda. This seasonal trek, as its normally called, sometimes breeds ethnic conflicts as the Itesots - who are mainly agriculturalists - accuse Karimojongs of grazing into their plantations. Also, the trek exposes pastoralists to cattle rustlers who steal animals using guns and sell them in South Sudan or Kenya.

Credit: Mohamed Matovu

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Date: 25/07/2011




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