Plan for droughts or people will eat rats

Climate change has been a topical issue for quite a while. Not all are agreed that it is caused by human activity. Some, including US President-elect Donald Trump, think the whole thing is a hoax.

Don’t tell that to people in eastern and southern Africa. They couldn’t care less whether climate change is caused by humans, gods or extra-terrestrials. All they know is that its effects are real and devastating.

The region, from Ethiopia and Somalia in the north to Malawi and Zimbabwe in the south, and even to Madagascar across the Indian Ocean, has been hit by severe drought leading to crop failure and scarcity of water.

Harrowing images of the effects of drought hit us every day. It is sad to see women (never men) in eastern Kenya or Madagascar trekking long distances in search of water, and even then what they get is dirty, muddy water.

Some carry it on the head or back especially in hilly areas. Others have devised slightly more comfortable ways of getting the water home. They tie a rope to a jerry can and drag it along or push it ahead of them.

Livestock moving across bare, parched and cracking earth in vain search of pasture and water, some dropping dead along the way, others giving birth in the forbidding surroundings, make  painful viewing.

Just across the border in Isingiro district of Uganda, where Rwandan refugees used to find plenty of food to supplement the standard UNHCR fare of beans and maize meal, the once plentiful bananas have disappeared.

Our own Eastern Province has not been spared.

These images are bad enough. They are made even worse by what usually follows - government officials scrambling to go to the affected regions to find out what is happening there.

This should not be happening. Droughts and resultant crop failure and food shortages do not just happen as unexpected phenomena. They can be predicted and therefore there should be a certain level of preparedness.

Today more accurate and reliable meteorological information is more readily available. If it cannot be obtained from our own met services because they are often woefully equipped, it can be sourced from the more advanced countries where more exact weather forecasting is possible. 

Also, nearly every country in the region has a ministry of disaster preparedness, presumably with plans for appropriate response. Nobody should be taken by surprise. It should not take the visit of the prime minister or other high ranking official to know what should be done.

Climate change is a fact. Numerous conferences have been held around the world to come up with a global response. The most recent were here in Africa, in Kigali, Rwanda and Marrakesh in Morocco. Many of the officials in the disaster ministries attend these conferences.

So what is missing?

It cannot be lack of knowledge or awareness. It is probably due to official indifference. The sector most vulnerable to drought is agriculture. Yet the people with the knowledge and information about how to plan for it are the bureaucrats whose stake in it probably does not go beyond job and salary.

Agriculture is altogether too serious a business to be left to bureaucrats alone. It is perhaps time business people got interested in it.

Where governments are more committed as in Ethiopia and Rwanda, the response to droughts and other natural disasters has been much better.

The question of food security does not appear to have got the right attention beyond its mention in government plans and reports. It should receive the same attention as defence because a nation unable to feed itself is a defenceless nation. 

In the past, countries relied on outsiders to come to their aid when famine-struck. While that will continue to happen, it is not a lasting solution. In the same you cannot leave national defence to the goodness of others, you should also not expect them to take care of your food security.

In any case, with people like Trump in power that is even more unlikely to continue.

The world is awake to the dangers of climate change and is taking appropriate action. But before global measures can have any impact, we should do everything in our means to safeguard ourselves from its devastating effects.

Being prepared is one of them. We do not want our people eating rats as happened in a country in this region not too long ago.