The Heat Is Online

Drought, fires sweep Horn of Africa

Drought Desperation

From Earthweek: A Diary of the Planet, The Boston Globe, March 28, 2000

At least eight monkeys were killed and 10 people left injured after a two-hour duel between Kenyans and thirsty monkeys in the Somali Desert. The human population of the area has been forced to exist on relief food and water supplies for six months due to an ongoing drought. The Daily Nation reported that the battle took place at a small trading center on the northern border of Kenya when three water tankers arrived at the drought-stricken trading post. When the monkeys saw the water being drawn off the tankers, they attacked the people that had grouped there so ferociously that the humans were forced to flee as the primates quenched their thirst. Members of the group returned with axes and machetes and fought back the monkeys in a lengthy battle.

Catastrophic weather spells more misery for Africa

NAIROBI - Reuters, March 9, 2000 -- While the people of Mozambique are deluged by floods, crops across the Horn of Africa have been shrivelled by drought and forest fires are burning out of control in Ethiopia.

Meteorologists say they can no longer predict what will happen next - global warming is slowly but inexorably changing the world's weather patterns so that past trends are not an indicator of the future.

Ironically for Africa, the continent has done little to sow the winds of this environmental disaster, since it produces less than five percent of annual emissions of the greenhouse gases which cause global warming. But it is still reaping the whirlwind.

Floods in Mozambique, and in neighbouring Zimbabwe and the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, are believed to have been caused by an exaggerated version of the La Nina weather phenomenon.

La Nina, which has the opposite effect of her meteorological brother El Nino, cools the Pacific Ocean and that causes a commensurate warming of the southern Indian Ocean.

WARMER OCEAN BRINGS CYCLONES

Fossil evidence dates the El Nino and La Nina cycles back at least 10,000 years, but this time the warming effect has been more intense.

The surface temperature of the Indian Ocean has been raised at least by one degree Celsius - enough to dangerously heighten cyclonic activity, said Peter Ambenje, a regional climatologist at Kenya's Meterological Department.

While Cyclones Eline and Gloria roared across southeastern Africa, drought has blighted the Horn of Africa as rainfall is dragged southwards.

In southern Ethiopia, hot, gusty winds have fuelled a man-made fire which has destroyed 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of forest and is approaching a national park containing some of the continent's rarest mammals, such as the Simien Fox and the Mountain Nyala.

While Africa has an endless history of environmental calamity, campaigners say the reluctance of industrialised nations to dramatically cut their use of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels means that the continent will suffer more and more natural disasters.

"We can expect to see more of these types of climatic disasters as the effects of climate change intensify," said Jon Walter, spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace.

"Millions of people will be left homeless and thousands will die in the coming decades unless we reduce our use of fossil fuels."

WEATHER UNPREDICTABLE

More worryingly, meteorologists say they will not always be able to forecast when disaster will strike.

"We are now living in a semi-artificial climate, not the climate our planet would have given us," said Dr Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia in eastern England. "The changing patterns of our weather events means that past statistics are not the best ones to predict the future."

The inability of poor African nations to cope with such nasty surprises was revealed tragically in Mozambique, where delays in mobilising an international rescue operation were thought to have cost hundreds of lives.

And the longer term consequences will be more keenly felt.

Poorly built houses have been washed away and Africa's high dependence on agriculture means economic recovery will be slow; the Mozambican government says it fears hard-won economic gains made over the last decade have been all but wiped out.

"These are countries which are already food insecure and have little ability to cope with a natural disaster," said Michele Quintaglie of the U.N.'s World Food Programme.

"They are vulnerable at the best of times and situations such as these just push them over the edge."

Ethiopia deploys 70,000 people to fight forest fire

ADDIS ABABA - Ethiopia said yesterday it had deployed some 70,000 people to fight a raging forest fire in the south of the country but international assistance was still needed.

Kuma Demeksa, head of a government committee set up to deal with the blaze, said soldiers, local farmers and university students had been mobilised to tackle the fire.

But he said international help was still required to provide aerial support to fight the three-week-old fire which has already destroyed at least 70,000 hectares of forest, scrub and coffee plantations.

An international firefighting team which has flown over the affected area said on Tuesday helicopter crews were needed to bomb the fires with water.

Johann Goldammer of the Global Fire Monitoring Centre said $30,000 in funding and other logistical support was needed for the first phase of the operation.

Conservationists say the fire is now approaching the Bale Mountains National Park, home to several of the world's rarest mammal species including the Simien Fox, Mountain Nyala and Menelik's Bushbuck.

The fires are thought to have been started by farmers clearing forest for cultivation, or honey collectors smoking out bees in areas dried out by drought. Hot, gusty winds have helped the fires take hold.

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE