Drought and Covid, the African Emergency Threatens to Explode

Mario Platero 
Columnist for la Repubblica, Guarantor for the Italian edition of the New York Times, President Gruppo Esponenti Italiani New York, Chairman Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA

In Maasai villages, the Omicron variant has not arrived. But rivers and tributaries are running dry because of the lack of rain. Millions of people are in danger, animals are dying, social tensions are rising. An exodus of biblical proportions is threatened.

Ornabuli is a small Maasai village, perhaps 200 people, a micro-community in the immense Masai Mara public reserve, 235,000 hectares, dotted with dozens of similar villages of precarious mud huts. Here, no news has yet arrived of the Omicron variant that frightens the world. For two reasons. The first is that in Ornabuli the pandemic has never struck, too isolated, and is heard of as a distant thing. The second is that there is already a matter of life and death: the endless drought that has burnt the pastures, destroyed the trees, brought aridity, and reduced the wild animals to the brink of exhaustion: giraffes, buffaloes, gazelles, zebras and rhinos that move in herds of up to several hundred heads in search of water.

Drought killed a cow this morning. I saw three men from the village skinning it to at least try to salvage something before the vultures and hyenas arrived. It may seem like a distant world, but as we will see from a series of statistical insights, it is a problem that instead concerns us very closely, as Europe and as an international community.

Many of the rivers and tributaries in northern Kenya are dry. The impact on populations is devastating. There are no water systems, and while in the past you could reach abundant sources within a kilometre, today you often have to travel five kilometres to reach a trickle. I saw small groups of shepherds, very young, with sheep or cows in serious difficulty. They are forced to look for water to water their flocks farther and farther away, in other people's land. Tensions arise, skirmishes without violent impacts, but with consequences for the precarious equilibrium of a demographic nucleus anyhow in difficulty: school work is disturbed, small businesses are interrupted, the few services, including health services, are paralyzed because of interminable disputes. Therefore, in this second year of drought, with rainfall between 20% and 40% for the season between October and December, on 8 September President Kenyatta declared a state of emergency, which is still in force: 2.4 million people are at risk, they will not be able to wait for the long rains expected between March and May.

The statistics give an even more disturbing overview for the 2.4 million people at risk. The Integrated Phase Classification (IPC)-phase 4 counts 368,000 people in emergency and the IPC-phase 3 counts 2 million people in crisis, three times more than the December 2020 figures when the situation already seemed critical. If the trend continues, the risk is that the number of people in crisis will increase geometrically, with devastating consequences for a rural economy that is already very poor in normal times.

There are an estimated 465,000 under-five children and 93,000 lactating women undernourished. And, as we know, there is nothing worse than abstaining from food during the period of growth. Poor agricultural harvests obviously contribute to the deterioration of the ecosystem. Take corn: the average harvest today is between 61% and 89% below normal. Corn stocks per household are 54% below the average of the last five years. The problem is not only in Kenya but is widespread in other Sub Saharan African nations. And I remember James Wolfensohn’s prophetic words in an interview before leaving the World Bank. His biggest concern? "Illegal migrations will be a serious problem. But they will be a catastrophe if they take biblical proportions in case of a crisis: what will happen if there are 20 million people knocking on Europe's doors?". As Italy, as Europe, we have been systematically absent, we have left the field open to China, which has invested thousands of billions, but which, in the event of serious problems, certainly does not run the risk of seeing millions of refugees arriving at its doorstep.

What to do? The truth is that it is not enough to organise aid packages or directives to reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2050, or to put pressure on the UN Convention. Kenya also has responsibilities, and unfortunately it looks too often the other way. Daniele Sardelli was born in Kenya to an Italian father, but despite his nostalgic Italian name he does not speak a word of our language. I met him much further north, in Lewa, an hour and a half by plane from Masai Mara, a smaller reserve, but still enormous according to our parameters, 65 thousand hectares. If Masai Mara is a public reserve, controlled by the local region, Lewa is a public foundation, but the land is still owned by the Craig family, of English origin but Kenyan for five generations: "The drought problem, with the danger of serious social repercussions, is very serious," says Sardelli. "Climate change is mainly the fault of the West's excesses, but we must also be realistic and self-critical, and denounce what they are doing in our country. For example, uncontrolled deforestation”. Sardelli tells me that in Kenya they produce a lot of coal from wood, because the prices of gas and oil are rising. Coal production is illegal, but tolerated. And deforestation ruins the environment, also because there is no serious reforestation programme and without forests there is not any rain. On top of that, there is corruption to reclaim land in protected areas, which is then used for construction.

Why is there no overall plan? Why did Kenyatta, speaking in Glasgow, denounce an African crisis due to the industrialised world, but did not mention his internal problems? I tried to ask these questions to Chief Morefu, the Ornabuli chief. He is 85 years old, has four or five wives and about thirty children, he is tall, handsome, and has a great deal of dignity, like all the Maasai, who number 1,200,000 in Kenya. Deforestation, Cop26, vaccines are too complex terms for his simple nomadic life. But he knows that the drought has caused the tenfold dropping of the price of cows, from $400 for an animal in good condition to around $50. The chief does not know what the pandemic is. But if in these climatic conditions the Omicron variant were to arrive, an increase in the pandemic in industrialised Kenya (the world's third largest producer of mangoes and Macadamia nuts, and perhaps first, ahead of Holland, in the production of roses and flowers) would add to the drought, in a nemesis of biblical proportions indeed, like the exodus that could follow, as anticipated by Wolfensohn in unsuspected times.


Translated by Léonard De Carlo


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