UN reports drought causing vast hunger
60 million at risk from war, disaster
The Boston Globe, Feb. 26, 2001UNITED NATIONS - In northern Africa's Chad, the water holes ran dry long ago. In Ethiopia, the bleached bones of dead cattle litter the ground. In Tajikistan in central Asia, the wheat crops are stunted and withered, and in war-torn Afghanistan not even the winter snow brought relief.
From Africa to Asia, severe, long-term drought now holds more than 20 countries in its grip. Combined with poverty and civil unrest, it is why a near-record 60 million people worldwide now desperately need emergency assistance including food, UN authorities and disaster relief specialists say.
Drought and other natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods are now the leading causes of food emergencies, and the number of people affected has soared from 4 million to 49 million since 1995, according to the United Nations World Food Program. In the last four years, the number who are hungry owing to drought has more than quadrupled.
''There are so many countries affected,'' said Catherine Bertini, director of the Rome-based World Food Program. ''It's as if Mother Nature took a paintbrush and painted a whole huge swath of the world with drought.''
Meteorologists say the droughts, along with severe flooding in other parts of the world, may stem in part from erratic weather patterns prompted by the La Nina phase of El Nino, which occurs with a significant shift in the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off South America.
The deepening drought, and the starvation and disease associated with it, may only grow worse, according to a panel of scientists who last week predicted that global warming could lead to growing numbers of similar natural disasters that would have their most direct effects on the world's poorest countries.
''We see clear indications there will be more extreme events,'' said Harvard University professor James McCarthy, chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change.
''And those countries that will experience the most devastating effects of this are the least equipped to deal with it. It's Africa we'd have to be the most concerned about,'' McCarthy added.
Some experts scoff at this scenario, saying it presents only a worst-case picture. ''There have been droughts and floods for millennia,'' said S. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia who served in the Reagan Administration. ''None of this is linked to global warming.''
But if it is unclear whether there is a direct link between the drought that now spans two continents and global warming, there is no doubt that droughts and other natural emergencies are producing a staggering level of starvation, malnutrition, and overall need.
Last August, some 100 million people were suffering from drought in Africa, Central Asia, and parts of the Caribbean and Central America, according to the World Food Program. Floods then wreaked havoc in Cambodia, Laos, and Bangladesh. Now, Mozambique is awash in floods, and a series of earthquakes has hit El Salvador. The Mozambique government last week appealed for $30 million in aid.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization announced last week that more than 60 million people worldwide are in urgent need of food assistance.
Africa and central Asia have been hit the hardest. There, years of inadequate rainfall in countries already reeling from poverty and civil unrest have reduced millions to desperate measures.
In conflict-ridden Afghanistan, tens of thousands of refugees have fled their homes in search of water and have eaten next year's seeds for food. In Tajikistan, where 85 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, many of the men among the 1 million affected by drought are now migrating to Russia in hopes of finding food for their families.
In war-torn Angola, cattle have been dropping dead at the rate of 100 a day. In Sudan, also torn by fighting, families are selling their precious livestock - the equivalent of an American's emptying a bank account - just for a handful to eat.
''The suffering in many of these areas is extreme,'' said Sue Lautze, a specialist on disaster relief at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Even in more tranquil Kenya, where some 4.4 million are estimated to be in urgent need of food assistance, the Masai now graze their cattle in the parks of the capital city, Nairobi, so desperate are they to find grass.
It is Africa, and particularly the troubled countries in the Horn of Africa, where the long-term drought has had its most damaging impact, with some 16 million people facing food shortages, according to UN statistics. Last year, a famine was only narrowly averted after a UN appeal.
Because many of these countries are pastoral societies - in which people rely on their livestock as their source of food - years without rain have had a particularly devastating impact. Camels, goats, and cattle have died or are being sold off.
In addition, the duration of the drought - nearly three years with only intermittent rainfall - has produced a surge in ''mortality, malnutrition, and infectious disease,'' said Dr. Peter Salama of the US Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. With people's immune systems weakened by hunger, infectious diseases like malaria and measles can rip through a population, killing off thousands.
''We are seeing massive mortality in the Horn of Africa, and that represents a big worry for the future,'' Salama added.
In June, hundreds of cholera cases were reported in Djibouti. The disease also has been reported in parts of Ethiopia, where an estimated 6.2 million are thought to be affected by drought. The World Health Organization has reported soaring rates of tuberculosis because of drought.
In some countries, war and political instability heighten the risk of famine. Sometimes, countries use scarce food as a weapon, hoping to rid themselves of their enemies, refugee groups charge.
''Where there is drought there is not necessarily famine,'' said Jean Francois Vidal, executive director of the New York-based Action Against Hunger. ''But where there is drought and civil war, there is disaster.''
For example, in Sudan, where thousands have been displaced during an 18-year war between an Islamic government in the north and Christian and animist rebels in the south, the regime stopped the UN from bringing in food aid in 1998.
''That probably produced 100,000 deaths in the south,'' said Roger Winter, executive director of the US Committee For Refugees in Washington, D.C. Food is now arriving in Sudan.
Africa is not the only continent that is suffering. Drought, combined with an unusually harsh winter, has brought hunger and malnutrition to the Middle East and parts of Asia as well. Iran and Afghanistan are seeing the worst droughts in nearly 30 years; Tajikistan has had the lowest amount of rainfall in 70 years.
Providing food alone is not enough for these countries or those in Africa, specialists say. People now are not just hungry, they are without any future means of livelihood - making it equally important to provide drought-stricken areas with medicine and food for livestock, if not replenishing the cattle itself, specialists say.
With so many simultaneous disasters, relief workers fear for the future. In the last 10 days the UN launched urgent appeals for food aid for Kenya, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Sudan.
''I am very worried about the long-term future of these societies,'' said Tufts University's Lautze. ''The world community is getting very tired of responding.''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 2/26/2001.