Queen's gesture is welcome, but...

With Queen Elizabeth II of Britain having reportedly made a personal donation to a UK charity appeal for families facing starvation in East Africa, it adds to the international concern over the drought currently ravaging the region.

The food crisis resulting from the drought threatens the lives of up to 17 million people in Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

Compared to the last big one in 2011 that affected 9.5 million, the current spell suggests a worsening situation since last year.

Indeed, Rwanda experienced some of its most trying moments around mid to late 2016 when the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources said the country was experiencing the worst drought in 60 years.

More than 47,300 households were affected, especially in Kayonza and Nyagatare districts in Eastern Province.

At one point the price of maize almost doubled from Rwf150 per kilo to Rwf280 on the East African Commodity Exchange (EAX).

It speaks of the trend in Eastern Africa – in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania – where the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says drought has sent prices of staples such as maize and sorghum soaring.

The effects of the drought have also severely hit livestock across the region with plummeting prices and thousands of deaths of various domestic animals.

Blame has, to some extent, been laid on failure of policy and implementation.

It is the more troubling that the depth of the crisis should even have a hint of human blame, being a matter of enlightened policy formulation and implementation, as well as conflict management (in situations where famine has been linked to conflict such as South Sudan).

By observing that the drought is cyclical and should have been anticipated, I will not be saying something new.

We already know that drought is bound to occur every four or five years as a consequence of the El Niño phenomenon.

It also matters little that a phenomenon similar to the El Niño known as the “Indian Ocean Dipole” is the culprit.

However, given that it portends a humanitarian disaster unprecedented in scale and impact, and which scientists say could spread further in the next few months, the dipole is nevertheless worth remarking.

Though not well known and often referred to as the Indian Niño, it has been verified to be the cause of the drought conditions we are currently experiencing.

While the El Niño is characterized by the appearance of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean off the South American coast, the dipole (meaning opposite poles or effects) refers to alternating cold and warm surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean off Indonesia.

The overall effect of the dipole is that the moist air evaporating from the warm water is cooler than the air inland in the continent causing a warm, dry wind to blow outward across the ocean from East and Horn of Africa.

The air blowing out to sea this time around has been drier than usual exacerbating the drought conditions. And note that we in the region rely on moisture from the Indian Ocean, now inhibited from making landfall, to generate the “short rains” that run from October to December and the “long rains” from March to June.

Therefore, whether it is the El Niño, a phenomenon first academically described in the 19th Century, or the Indian Ocean Dipole, identified by Japanese researchers only in the late 1990s, we know that dry spells will occur sooner or later with varying magnitude and impact.

Thus, with the drought not being purely an Act of God in that it should have been anticipated, it makes for a damning indictment not only on the national governments in the region, but the East African Community (EAC) and the larger Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

The Queen should never have had to intervene.

Twitter: @gituram