Saturday, October 20, 2007

Famine a visible result of climate change in Eastern Africa

ReliefWeb: Climate change is likely to be aggravating the chronic food shortages in many parts of Eastern Africa. In some countries, at 95% of the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, most of it without irrigation. Erratic rainfall patterns continue to severely disrupt local food production. "The drought has affected everyone," says Oscar Murengeratwari, a farmer in Burundi. "In former times I could never imagine that I would have to beg or get food assistance."

New research suggests that the climate change threat is greater in Africa than many parts of the world – on average the continent is 0.5°C warmer than it was a hundred years ago. And the changing weather patterns are already creating new complex emergencies where areas are simultaneously hit by drought and floods, often accompanied by outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Diseases such as cholera and Rift Valley Fever, which were thought to have been eradicated, have now re-appeared. Many communities are living through almost permanent disaster conditions.

"Now it is time to start preparing vulnerable communities for the worst. Climate change is one of the main risks facing humanity today," says Madeleen Helmer, head of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Change Centre in The Hague, Netherlands.

Burundi, where more than half the population live on less than one US dollar a day, has been hit by a series of droughts and floods – for example, drought in 2006 followed by floods in 2007. This year, two million people have been hit by floods and in need of assistance, almost 25% of the population. Crops and livestock were destroyed. Many people, even today, only have one meal a day, others survive on food relief.

"The most visible aspect of climate change is famine – brought on by drought and floods," says Jean Marie Sabushimike, Professor of Geography at the University of Burundi.

Disaster response is an expensive task for the government. According to Nintunga Servilien, head of a government department on Disaster Management in Burundi, almost USD 74 million has been spent in 2007 in the drought-hit province of Kirundo, mostly for food relief and medicines. Disaster preparedness would be a better use of resources. He says: "We have to integrate disaster risk reduction in development programmes now."

There are also worrying signs of lakes and rivers drying up….

Not surprisingly, there are high levels of migration in the area as people try and find food and work in other parts of the country or even go to neighbouring countries such as Tanzania.

The Red Cross societies in these countries are beginning to give serious thought to the impact of climate change – particularly since the worst hit are often those already vulnerable. The Red Cross/Red Crescent has something unique to contribute to the debate and the ongoing work to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Anselme Katyunguruza, the secretary-general of the Burundi Red Cross, is among those who see a clear role for the Red Cross/Red Crescent in this area. "We need to train our volunteers so that they can integrate the early warning system in other activities," he says. "Our advantage is that volunteers live in every village of the country so we always get 'breaking news' of what's happening at the grassroots level."

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