Drought: East Africa caught with our pants down again

Thursday April 13 2017

Before even the devastating effects of the drought on human and animals in East Africa are ineffectively managed, the region is now facing another catastrophe. 

Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are facing reduced harvests due to an invasion of armyworms, posing a serious danger to food security in the region. 

While armyworms and droughts are occasional occurrences, the region is often caught off-guard because authorities don’t take seriously the early warnings often issued by scientists. 

For instance, the warning that armyworms are likely to invade Kenya after their presence was discovered in Tanzania and Uganda, were not acted upon until the insects started wrecking maize and sugarcane farms.

That Trans-Nzoia County, which is Kenya’s food basket, has seen thousands of acres of maize farms invaded by the armyworms, is alarming, especially as it could been prevented. 

Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are now forced to cough up millions of dollars for the purchase of specialised chemicals to mitigate the situation. Kenyan farmers, for instance, are likely to lose crops worth $117 million, while Ugandan farmers are likely to lose $200 million.

USAid, through its Famine Early Warning System, indicated that the region is likely to experience a major shortfall in maize harvests, from 2.7 million tonnes to 1.2 million tonnes. This could lead to further increases in the price of maize flour.

It has always been the same story — be it drought or a frost attack in tea plantations — where authorities come up with emergency measures to mitigate a situation that could have been avoided, or its impact reduced to the minimum.

For instance, the United Nations, through the Food and Agriculture Organisation, had issued a warning in early December that Kenya was going to experience drought in the first quarter of 2017 that was going to affect both humans and animals.

The lack of water and pastures caused serious social tension in northern Kenya and the entire Laikipia County between pastoralists and ranch owners. The conflict reached dangerous levels never experienced in Kenya in the recent past.

Yet experience has shown that Kenya and countries in the Horn such as Somalia and South Sudan, have experience drought roughly every three years for the past three decades. The recent drought affected 23 arid and semi-arid counties, forcing President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare a national disaster and appeal for international partners to come to the rescue .

The bottom line is that the level of disaster preparedness in the region is seriously wanting. Last year, the East African Legislative Assembly enacted the Disaster Management Act, allowing the region to take necessary disaster preparedness, management, protection and mitigation measures as well as handle disasters in a more co-ordinated way.

However, the fact that the Bill was drafted way back in 2013 and that it took three years to turn it into law is an indication that countries in the regions do not take disaster preparedness seriously.