Coping with a deadly drought

Hal Quinn July 29 1985

Coping with a deadly drought

Hal Quinn July 29 1985

Coping with a deadly drought

Hal Quinn

Across the breadth of northern Africa millions of people have fled from the advance of the world’s biggest desert, the Sahara, only to suffer from the longest sub-Saharan drought in memory. Countless millions have died, and more than 10 million refugees are starving or near starvation. For 17 years drought has laid waste the land known as the Sahel—an Arabic word that means “the border beach land”—and neighboring eastern Africa. Each year the Sahara spreads two to five kilometres southward. In the past 50 years the desert has claimed two per cent of the continent: 250,965 square miles of the semiarid zone that stretches some 5,000 km across Africa. Said Maurice Strong, executive co-ordinator for the United Na-

tions Office for Emergency Operations in Africa: “It is the single greatest ecocatastrophe in modern history.”

Despite efforts to feed the starving, the scope of the disaster is growing. In Chad 1,000 people are dying each month as are 750,000 children under the age of 5 in the Sudan each year. Experts predict that the drought will continue and the suffering will increase. Indeed, the dry era, which began in 1968, may reflect a permanent change in the region’s harsh climate—with coincident changes elsewhere. And some experts say that the change may largely be man-made. Said Lester Brown, analyst for Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based demographics study centre: “There is now evidence that population growth may be driving climate change in Africa.”

In addition to sheer numbers, politics and war have intensified the desperate

quest for water. For centuries the nomadic peoples of the region coped with recurring dry times. When the rains stopped, they migrated south to more verdant territory. Then, whenever the rains returned, often years later, the nomads moved again. But in the 20th century the fixing of modern national borders as well as frequent wars have restricted traditional migration patterns. No longer able to move freely, an increasing population has been largely locked into the semiarid strip.

Population: In the Sahel alone, which geographers define as reaching from the Atlantic eastward to Chad, a 1961 population of 19 million people grew to 30 million in 20 years and—despite the drought—is projected to reach 50 million by the year 2000. Across the entire drought belt—some 6,500 km long, ranging in north-south width from about 650 km on the Atlantic to 1,500 km

in the east—unrelenting population growth has led to soil exhaustion, overgrazing by domestic animals and deforestation. Much of the region can no longer sustain vegetation, hold moisture or prevent the advance of _

desert. The World Bank estimates that if present climate conditions persist, the region will at best be capable of feeding only half its people. Said Worldwatch’s Brown: “There are only two ways to bring population growth down—by lowering birth rates or increasing death rates.” Shortages: As recently as 1970 Africa was virtually feeding itself. Yet by 1984,140 million of its 531 million people were dependent on imported grains. This year drought has caused serious food shortages in 21 countries and critical shortages in Ethiopia, Sudan, Mali and Chad. The Sahel nations now need an extra 1.75 million tons of grain. The

crisis, particularly in Ethiopia, has gained worldwide attention and sympathy. Because of relief efforts, millions of tons of grain and millions of dollars have poured into the region. But in many cases inadequate transportation and civil strife—in Ethiopia, Chad and Sudan—have hampered disbursement. Relief experts warn that emergency aid may ameliorate the present misery but it will do little to solve the long-term problems. One of the most serious is deforestation. Trees have been felled for building materials and firewood while cattle have devastated the bushes and grasses that anchor the arid

soil. In Ethiopia forests covered 40 per cent of land only 75 years ago; today only four per cent of the country is forested. Without the trees Ethiopia is losing more than one billion tons of topsoil each year. Water: According to University of Toronto meteorologist F. Kenneth Hare, the topsoil is critical to the region’s rainfall cycle. Because of two decades of soil erosion, Hare says, there is virtually no retained water

on the continent. Said Hare: “We may have permanently damaged the waterholding capacity of the core of the African continent.” Based on recorded averages over 30 years in the Sahel, the 1983 rainfall shortage ranged from 20 per cent in Niger to 90 per cent in Mauritania. The Senegal River is at one-third its normal level. The Niger River, once considered West Africa’s principal reservoir, is now at a lower point than at

any time in recorded history. The solution, according to scientists, may be as drastic as the crisis now facing the residents of the Sahel. Hare, for one, has urged that the only way to correct the situation is to “evacuate the land” for 10 to 50 years to enable the natural plant life to recover. Such a solution would require African governments to house millions of people in massive refugee camps and Western nations to supply massive aid for decades. Until the onset of the current drought, wide variations in annual rainfall in the Sahel were accepted as nor-

mal. But six consecutive years of below-average rainfall were expected to occur only once every 60 or 70 years. According to meteorologist Derek Winstanley of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the chances of 17 consecutive years of belowaverage rainfall are one in 125,000. Winstanley’s research indicates that rainfall in the Sahel’s wet season—June to September —has been declining for 200 years and will continue to

decline. According to Winstanley, a “near-normal” rainfall recorded in 1974 was merely a pause in the long-term drought. The Climatic Research Unit in Norwich, England, has noted a gradual warming trend in the Northern Hemisphere since 1851. A sudden acceleration in the warming during the 1970s coincided with the intensification of the African drought.

Desertification: The spread of the deserts represents a deadly threat to the world. No less than 36 per cent of the Earth’s land mass is covered by climatecreated desert. Man-made desert, caused by the destruction of naturally occurring vegetation, has added another 3.5 million square miles, or seven per cent. According to Mohammed Kassas, former president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, yet another 116,000 square miles will succumb to advancing deserts (and cities) by the year 2000. And each year almost 27.5 billion tons of soil is eroded around the globe. A Worldwatch study estimates that at the present rate of erosion the Earth will eventually lose one-third of its soil.

Long-term solutions will require long-term aid. Still, emergency aid is critically needed. And unless the world overcomes logistical barriers to speeding relief to the famine-afflicted regions, warned Winston Prattley, special representative of UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, “you will not be able to count the bodies. The children will be little mounds in the sand.” O