East Africa’s dust bowl

The tragedy here is that this crisis is as much man-made as it is natural.

Wajir, Kenya – The people out here are tough, and so are their animals. But there is a limit to how much any human can take, and people like Alfon Abdulahi Mohamed have reached it.

We met Alfon as we drove towards what the aid agencies have called the “ground zero” of East Africa’s devastating drought-hit areas.

For mile after dusty mile, the land was not just parched but burned out. All shades of brown and yellow sand, crisp grey thorn bushes, and pools of deep red dust billowed up in great waves, as we ploughed through the dirt road like a ship in a storm.

On our way, we passed an abandoned borehole. We found nothing but the bleached bones of livestock. We stopped at the village to ask why. Alfon stepped forward and told us that her own camel was in the bush nearby, too weak to walk.

This stoic old woman with eight children to feed, took us through the scrub to the slowly dying animal. It had collapsed in the feeble shade of another thorn-bush, moaning softly when Alfon stooped to scratch its neck.

For all her crusty exterior, Alfon almost broke down when she explained how the female camel, who she called “Dup Muthow, had given her and her children milk for years.

But Dup hadn’t had a decent drink for months. The camel looked as though it would be lucky to survive the night.

The tragedy here is that this crisis is as much man-made as it is natural. The meteorologists have blamed the prolonged dry-spell on the “la Nina” phenomenon – when cooler-than-normal ocean currents cycle through the Pacific Ocean.

But out here, they also blame the government.

Alfon told us that the pump that drew water her village borehole broke down about a month ago. The government had since been promising to fix it .

Elsewhere, shockingly bad roads, intermittent electricity supplies and damaged bridges make it difficult, if not impossible, to move goods and services around.

Bad economics are also to blame. As we drove through the town of Wajir, we saw the market stocked with fresh vegetables, grains and pulses, but all of it is beyond the reach of all but the richest people here.

The rise in global grain prices, the surge in oil, speculative traders and bad infrastructure have all conspired to drive up the price of staples such as maize by around 80 per cent. Over the border in Somalia, it is closer to 200-300 per cent.

And then there is the politics.

Al Shabab, the Islamist movement fighting to bring down the government, had until recently banned international agencies from delivering aid into areas under its control.

That means most of southern Somalia has missed out on desperately needed help, driving hundreds of thousands of people into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia and even into Mogadishu, Somalia’s war-torn capital.

To a lesser extent, politics has also slowed development in drought-affected areas of the entire Horn.

It is no coincidence that the hardest hit are also on the fringes of national politics, and so tend to suffer from neglect – not all of it always benign.

This crisis wouldn’t have happened without the drought, of course. But it wouldn’t be half as bad if humans hadn’t got in the way.