A WELL-RESPECTED colleague at The Salvation Army’s International Headquarters has often told me: ‘Future generations will fight wars over water, not oil.’ My recent experiences in the Horn of Africa suggest that this future may be with us already.
During the past few months we in the International Emergency Services section have been aware of a developing crisis in east Africa. Disasters are often divided into two groups, categorised as ‘natural’ – things like earthquakes or hurricanes – or ‘human made’, which might include events such as war or industrial accidents. Within those two groups we also refer to ‘rapid onset’ disasters – such as an earthquake which happens with no warning – and ‘slow onset’ disasters.
The current crisis in east Africa is a slow onset disaster. It’s been creeping up on us over the past few years. The rains which are usually expected twice each year have failed on the last five occasions. The result is that harvests have been successively reduced. These slow onsets act rather like a disease, gradually debilitating communities. As the amount harvested from each planting diminishes, so families are forced to sell assets in order to make up the shortfall. This may be livestock or possessions. Each successive harvest failure sees them with less ability to survive. Assets are stripped and the coping ability of families declines.
The other big problem about a slow onset disaster is that there is no ‘big bang’. The humanitarian community often refers to the ‘CNN moment’ – that period when world attention focuses for just a short time upon an emergency. We can all remember recent CNN moments – the day we watched the attacks upon the Twin Towers in New York or the morning we woke to news of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The CNN moment fires the imagination and so often acts as the catalyst to stir world response. Slow onsets usually go unnoticed until things are at a critical point.
Kjell Magne Bondevik, the United Nations special humanitarian envoy for the Horn of Africa, reports that an estimated 11 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania are facing food shortages because of a drought that has ravaged the region and warns that many people in the drought-hit region will die unless families are assisted with urgent supplies of food and water.
Although I was aware that the crisis was looming, my personal CNN moment happened when a Salvation Army leader phoned me from his office in Africa to report that Salvation Army officers in his country were being taken into hospital suffering from malnutrition. It hit me hard to learn that colleague officers who had signed the same ministry covenant as I had were unable to find the funds to adequately feed themselves and their families.
It also made me realise that if families with some form of monthly wage (even though extremely small) were suffering so badly, how much worse it must be for those millions of families with no reliable salary at all.
With the full support of the international leaders of The Salvation Army an appeal has been launched to raise awareness of this crisis, solicit donor support and find ways in which assistance can be given.
Armed with pledges of financial support I was privileged to spend a week in Kenya as part of a territorial assessment team. Ms Damaris Frick (seconded from Germany to assist the International Emergency Services section) and I joined with Marshall Currie and Captain Isaac Siundu from The Salvation Army’s projects office in Nairobi.
I use the word ‘privileged’ deliberately, as I was greeted warmly, courteously and graciously by all whom I met. But the scenes I witnessed of shrivelled crops, dry fields and desperate people – not to mention the many carcasses of beautiful animals lining the roads – are far from positive memories.
In a frantic five-day period we toured five government districts, meeting with government representatives, community leaders and local people. There were huge needs everywhere, but common themes were heard in all locations – water was scarce, there was no pasture for animals and harvests were non-existent. Intervention was urgently needed. In each district the Government and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are working together to truck water to the worst-hit areas.
It was famine that had prompted the response but a few days in the area harshly reminded me that hunger and a lack of food were symptoms of a deadly disaster – drought.
We visited Turkana in the north-eastern corner of Kenya. Bordering Sudan and Ethiopia, this desert district faces huge challenges. The District Commissioner, Mr T. N. Miiri, welcomed us warmly and outlined the challenges that he and his colleagues face. The water table has dropped very low and the shallow wells are drying up. An emergency water tankering operation is under way but there are only two tankers covering an area larger than the country of Belgium and almost totally without tarmac roads. On duty for 24 hours each day, the vehicles are being pushed to work harder than they are capable of, and frequently break down. As he pleaded for help Mr Miiri simply said: ‘We are sitting on a time bomb.’
For a visitor, Turkana is a fascinating place. The rural populations live a very simple life. The image of the tall Turkanan woman, with her long neck encased in brightly coloured necklaces, walking gracefully through the desert is a picture often used to portray the beauty of Africa. That dignity is clear for all to see – even today. But beauty and grace cannot mask the fact that life is unbearably hard.
Major Cedric Hills (centre) helps distribute emergency maize rations in one of the many areas where the harvest has failed
The water point at Kithimani – difficult to reach, muddy and slow to refill – is now the only source of ‘clean’ drinking water for many people
Major Cedric Hills, Captain Isaac Siundu and Damaris Frick find a dead zebra – the latest victim of Kenya’s drought
These cattle were left in a Salvation Army compound in the hope that they would have a better chance of survival
Emergency worker Damaris Frick helps local woman Pauline with the slow job of filling her jerrycan at Kithimani water point
The lives of the pastoralist families are based on the herd. Their only wealth comes from their cattle and their diet is meat, milk and animal blood. Herds have been developed through many generations of breeding, passed as inheritance from father to son. So the hunt to find adequate pasture sees the men driving their flocks hundreds of miles. This hunt takes them far from home and, increasingly, into areas rightly belonging to others. Turkanan pastoralists have moved across the borders and into Uganda and Ethiopia. They are simply looking for water and pasture but, seen to be ‘stealing’ assets not rightly theirs, the neighbours demand ‘taxes’ – usually in the form of animals.
|>||The World Food Programme reports that more than six million people living in the group of countries known as the ‘Horn of Africa’ (Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti) are in need of emergency food relief. It estimates that, at present, it only has enough funding to feed just over half of that number.|
|>||Much of the rest of Africa also faces famine this year, with more than one person in three undernourished in Rwanda, Burundi, Eritrea, Tanzania, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.|
|>||The Salvation Army launched an ‘Africa Famine Appeal’ in January 2006 – long before the world’s media began to notice the growing disaster in Africa.|
|>||A message from International Headquarters to Salvation Army leaders around the world in February reported: ‘The Salvation Army is well-placed [to respond] because of our ongoing presence ... [In Kenya] feeding will be targeted at the most vulnerable people through schools’ programmes ... with the objective being to bring an additional one million children into existing programmes.’|
Even within the district boundaries, Mr Miiri told us he has seen tribes venturing into areas which are normally thought of as being very hostile. Places normally regarded as no-man’s-land can no longer remain empty. As if to highlight the real danger he told us: ‘The lion is sleeping with the antelope.’ There might be a fragile peace now – but for how much longer?
So how can we help? As I pen this article plans are being developed for The Salvation Army to provide large water storage tanks and place them in strategic locations such as schools, market places and health posts.
These tanks will be linked to guttering and drainpipes so that any rain that might fall in the future is harvested and stored. Water bowsers – mobile tanks that are towed behind trucks – are being bought and will be used in partnership with the district authorities to take water from the remaining reliable sources in order to fill the large storage tanks.
As if to highlight the disparity in world resources, on the very day I returned from Kenya to my home in the UK the BBC evening news reported the anger being expressed by some homeowners at local authority plans to install water meters and charge for water consumption. To many this seemed wrong – after all, water should be available as a right, shouldn’t it?
You don’t have to travel many miles from home to discover this right is denied to many. In countries where drought ravages the population, water is a very precious commodity – perhaps even more precious than gold or oil. If the future means war for water, then perhaps the future is now.
Major Cedric Hills is The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services Coordinator