Burundi + 2 more

Famine a visible result of climate change in Eastern Africa

By Anita Swarup in Nairobi

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. In Fadis, the eastern part of Ethiopia, the River Boco has completely dried up - partly as a result of a lack of rainfall. The river used to be the main source of irrigation in the area. Yusuf Idris, a local village elder, remembers the fertile soil and orange groves that used to be here. Today his farm produces so little that his children end up having to go to nearby towns to sell their labour and engage in petty trade. Indeed, Yusuf and many others in the area have ended up living on food relief.

Nearby, Lake Haromaya, dried up four years ago. Today, it is a patchwork of small farms. Fatiya Abatish Jacob is a local trader who lived near the lake for 14 years. She laments: "I used to get my drinking water from the lake, now I have to walk 8 km to get it. Also there were many vegetables farmers round here using the water for irrigation and we used to get fish. Now there's no fish round here and vegetables are more expensive."

Adds Ahmed Abdi, who used to be a fisherman on the lake: "I used to catch Nile Perch and other small fish. Now I have no income." The lake also previously supplied water to the nearby town of Harar; the town now suffers from serious water shortages.

It is a similar situation in Rwanda. In Bugesera region, where around 40% of the people are never sure where their next meal is coming from, many farmers have suffered one bad harvest after another due to late or erratic rainfall.

Among them is farmer Mary Jane Nzabamwita. Last year, she estimates, her harvest was down by 50%, this year by 40%. Yet she has five children to feed and to send to school.

"I feel I do not have any freedom, I feel like I am going backwards. The children are not doing so well. When you see a child of 10 years you will think he is only five," says Mary Jane. Her 67-year old mother, who lives with her family, adds: "I have lived here for 21 years and these last years have been the worst."

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."