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When there's drought, African governments urged to act before there's famine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Horn of Africa is facing one of the worst droughts in history. Meteorologists predict the next wet season will likely fail to deliver enough rain, putting millions of people at risk of starvation. NPR's Eyder Peralta traveled to one of the most distressed areas and found that a lot of this human suffering is preventable.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Just a decade ago, this place used to be green. Cows grazed on rolling hills covered in lush grass. But today it's barren. It's all dirt, dust and rocks. Most of the cows have died.

SULDANA ABDULLAHI: (Speaking Somali).

PERALTA: Suldana Abdullahi has three cows, but at this point, you can see bones poking through their skin. In the old days, these cows would thrive on their own. Now they're kept in a pen because, otherwise, they would walk miles looking for pasture, and they'd die of exhaustion.

ABDULLAHI: (Speaking Somali).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: She says some died of diseases. And, you know, when they are weak like this, they are always susceptible to every disease.

PERALTA: This is one of the most remote regions of Ethiopia. It's right along the border of Somalia. And residents here say that they haven't had any rain for six years. The drought is so intense, even the acacia trees are dying. We move to a place that used to be a village. Zenaib Ahmed, a herder, is one of the last people left. She says when the rains stopped, this place slowly became hell.

ZENAIB AHMED: (Speaking Somali).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: Then there was no pasture for livestock. And then there was no water for both.

PERALTA: The homes here look like tropical igloos. They're oval structures, meticulously woven with reeds and branches. But now they're falling apart. The school is empty. Most people went to the cities looking for work or humanitarian aid. Zenaib says this is not what life used to be like. Before, they thrived.

AHMED: (Speaking Somali).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: The life was good. Everybody was happy. Boys and girls used to...

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: And all of that is done. No more?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #2: No more marriage. No more discussion?

PERALTA: So even that, no.

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: She jokes that even love has stopped flourishing in this part of Ethiopia. Depending on what measure you use, this is likely the worst drought on record in the Horn of Africa. The statistics are staggering.

GUYO ROBA: Between 20 to 32 million people in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia will be acutely food insecure.

PERALTA: That's Guyo Roba of the Jameel Observatory for Food Security.

ROBA: And out of that, maybe, like, 7 million children are severely malnourished by September.

PERALTA: What's worse, says Roba, is that climate change means that this region is now facing drought more often. There was drought in 2010, 2011, 2016, 2017, and now since 2020. It means the people of this region have already used up their emergency reserves. And their animals, which represents a bank account, were already weak. It means that during this drought, 7 million livestock have died, wiping out generations of progress.

ROBA: We are actually looking at the most prolonged drought and maybe most devastating.

PERALTA: But Roba says this is not some forsaken land. Indeed, the solutions are well known, and every country has the potential and natural resources to grow more than enough food to feed everyone.

ROBA: Nobody should go hungry. I think what is missing is actually a judicious mix of investments.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

PERALTA: Back in the field not far from that abandoned village, Abdullahi Ibrahim of the World Food Program leads me past the fence, and suddenly the terrain changes from barren land to fields of corn, cilantro, tomatoes, onions. It's all green. It's all beautiful.

Wow. So this is what's possible here?

ABDULLAHI IBRAHIM: Yeah. There's nothing impossible. Only resources is required.

PERALTA: So we went from, like, desert to, like, this massive field. What is it, corn?

IBRAHIM: Yes - because the river is just here. We are pumping the river water here.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER PUMP)

PERALTA: Most of the people here have herded animals for centuries. This pilot program installs pumps and teaches herders to farm. The hope is that they'll grow food and feed for their animals, and they'll be able to survive these droughts. Isaac Ali, who's in his 50s, says before this year, he never dreamed of farming.

ISAAC ALI: (Through interpreter) We never used to see it as important.

PERALTA: Herders in this part of the world tend to guard their way of life zealously. Ali walks us to his plot of land. He marvels at how the blades of green dance in the wind. He doesn't mind not having cows anymore. Farming suits him.

ALI: (Speaking Somali).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER #1: He got even the chance of conducting his prayers in the mosques, chance to rest. But in the past, he used to move with the animals.

PERALTA: Roba, the food expert, says this is exactly the kind of change that should be happening across the Horn of Africa. But at the moment, governments and the big aid agencies are failing.

ROBA: The way we structure our intervention is a problem.

PERALTA: He says governments and aid agencies have advanced warning of drought. But for 50 years, they have waited until there's a threat of famine to act. By then, all the money goes to emergency food aid. Roba says treating drought as an emergency will never fix the problem long term. Instead, he says, governments and aid agencies should be thinking.

ROBA: How do we develop a framework that looks at drought not as an emergency, but as a creeping long-term calamity phenomenon?

PERALTA: In the Somali region of Ethiopia, what we hear over and over from the residents is that their world has changed forever, and they're willing to change with it. They're willing to be farmers if they have to. As we leave, we meet Mohammed Hassan Mohamud, a community elder. He says what this project has taught them is that they can still survive in this land.

MOHAMMED HASSAN MOHAMUD: (Speaking Somali).

PERALTA: He quotes a Somali saying, if "you don't know your land, it will eat you." But now he says, they know.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MULATU ASTATKE SONG, "GAMBELLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.