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Namibia battles worst drought in decades

Almost half of Namibians face food insecurity as drought devastates southern African country.

Last Modified: 09 Oct 2013 12:15
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Farmers have lost thousands of cattle and expect to lose more if the drought continues [Al Jazeera]

Opuwo, Namibia - The Tjikundi family sits around a small fire boiling a tin pot filled with water and maize - the only food that's available this day. A band of children crawl about, chewing on plastic tubing, and chase the visitors with animated curiosity. 

The homestead is spectacular in its bareness. Soft, dry sand interrupted only by rocks and boulders fashion a molten envy for a lighter, brighter time. The livestock kraal is empty. So too are the granaries. 

Scraggy roosters gawk and peck at the dust with fraught expectation while a domestic cat, at total odds with the environment, purrs and curls around people's ankles. 

"This year is very bad because we have lost all our cattle," Mukaokondunga Tjikundi, in her early 20s, told Al Jazeera. "Sometimes the children go to bed with empty stomachs. Sometimes they just drink some water and go to sleep."

Hunger and hardship are recurring themes in Kunene, the northwest province in Namibia, considered the hardest-hit region by a drought many consider the worst in decades. 

Almost one million people out of Namibia’s 2.3 million population face moderate to serious levels of food insecurity. The Namibian government in May estimated this year's harvest would yield 42 percent less than 2012. 

In Kunene, two years of failed rains have devastated millet and maize plantations, dried up watering holes for livestock, and forced a population to search for precarious water supplies. Animals drink stagnant water in dry riverbeds, while some Namibians dig for water across the province and guard any source found with little wooden fences. 

'Catastrophe' 

"If people can resort to [drinking] dirty water, more are likely to suffer from water-borne diseases and the health situation is likely to deteriorate for animals and humans," Jack Ndemena, water and sanitation officer with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told Al Jazeera. 

President Hifikepunye Pohamba has appealed for aid [EPA]

"There is nothing and if the rains don’t come, it is going to be a catastrophe." 

In May, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba was forced to declare a state of emergency and requested $33.7 million in international support to avert a crisis. Recognising the strain across the country, the IFRC and UNICEF launched appeals for $1.2m and $7.4m, respectively. 

But little aid has arrived. 

On September 2, Algeria donated $1m in food aid but the reaction from the rest of the international community has been poor. 

Experts say Namibia’s status as a middle-income country hasn’t helped its appeals. Despite its wealth, the country suffers from high levels of income inequality. One-third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, and Namibia ranked 120 out of 187 countries on the 2012 UNDP Human Development Index

Malnutrition is the second-most common cause of death recorded for children under five, even in non-drought years. And with the onset of this year’s drought, an estimated 109,000 children under five are at risk of acute malnutrition. 

"Namibia still does not feed itself, and the middle-income classification comes from livestock, mining and fisheries industries - [this] does not provide an accurate situation on the ground," Cousins Gwanama, head of the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Namibia in Windhoek, told Al Jazeera. 

And it is unlikely the situation is about to get better. 

'Confused'

With little rainfall predicted for later this year, farmers have described the drought as among the harshest in a generation. Granaries are empty as few crops were planted last year. With plateaus unsuitable for grazing, many pastoralist farmers have been forced to leave their homes and families and herd their livestock to higher ground with more vegetation, often involving a few days’ walk.

Accustomed to little rainfall, farmers have survived in semi-arid regions of Namibia for decades. But the total absence of precipition has left many perplexed and concerned, their farms lurching towards economic ruin. 

"I thought we understood the environment, nature, but we are almost confused and don’t know what to expect," farmer Toivo Ruhozu told Al Jazeera.

"If the government doesn’t help, we will just have to face death."

A child holds a baby goat in Okangwati village [UNICEF/AP]

Members of one family in Otjikati village, also in Kunene province, said they lost 20 cows this year alone. An elder at another village said they "would die with the animals" if they did not receive adequate help. 

Despite the Namibian government's attempts to tackle the problem, officials admit they need help. 

"I think it might not be possible to cover everybody at the same time," Japhet Iitenge, director of the Disaster Risk Management office, told Al Jazeera .

"Our needs start with food to feed the people. It is the ultimate goal to provide food and water for both animals and people, but there are other needs to avert the suffering of our population," Iitenge said. 

Climate change?

Farmers say they were not convinced by a government proposal to buy their cattle and other livestock in an attempt to help alleviate the situation. 

"I look at the cows and think I would leave it in God’s hands and let them die [rather] than give it to others for such a low price," Karikohua Ngombe, 35, said. 

Namibia - considered the driest country in southern Africa - is not the only one affected by drought. At least 1.5 million people in neighbouring Angola are also suffering it effects, but the government there insists it has the situation under control. 

In September, the Famine Early Warning Network Service said lowered corn production throughout the region had raised prices and advanced acute food insecurity in Zimbabwe and Malawi as well.

Officials have been quick to attribute the latest drought to rising desertification caused by climate change. Others, however, say rainfall patterns over the past four years suggest it is part of cyclical drought in the region. 

"Data indicates that average rainfall over the past 50 years hasn't shifted, so claims of climate change being the cause of this drought are exaggerated. It appears to be merely a case of cyclical drought," said Gwanana from University of Namibia.

But given that the country was devastated by flooding in 2009, and Caprivi province also experienced floods as late as March 2013, such extreme shocks within a few years are likely to give credence to theories that hold climate change responsible for the severe drought.

Back of the queue

 

Meanwhile, farmers across the country wait for food rations and for the international community to take the situation more seriously.

But in terms of international assistance, Namibia’s middle-income status, low population, and inconsequential geography places it at the back of the queue on a continent that includes DR Congo, Somalia and Malawi.

Ignacio Leon, the head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for southern Africa, said there was an international perception that southern Africa was a low-risk disaster area.

"But the reality is that, since 2000, there have been 47 emergencies in the region that have demanded international assistance. These crises have affected at least 14 million people," he said in a press statement .

Without people dying en masse and absent images of decaying cattle skeletons across the sand, the world is unlikely to respond to Namibia's desperation anytime soon.

"Given that we are human beings, we wait for that moment when people start dying," said IFRC's Ndemena. "But this is a situation that can be arrested. We can try to help now in order not to go to that extreme situation when people start dying."

Back at Okapare village, a partly filled 20kg bag of maize meal hangs from a tree above women watching over a steaming pot. Its contents are unlikely to last much longer. Some women are busy stitching goods, others are out trying to gather firewood to sell.

With its brittle mud huts, empty granaries, and malnourished children crawling about the dirt, the homestead is a microcosm of the impending devastation now predicted by drought experts.

Mukaokondunga Tjikundi says the family have no expectations of receiving help from anyone. "We are just collecting wood, selling them, trying (to survive). We have no expectations of government, of anyone, because you can never know when the help will end."

Follow Azad Essa on twitter: @azadessa 

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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