Sunday, August 21, 2011

The crisis that could have been avoided

I spent last week in Kenya on an assignment for the Dutch NGO Wilde Ganzen. Now that the drought in this country, Somalia and a part of Ethiopia is so much in the news, and many people have given generously for emergency support, they want to emphasize that what is needed just as much is support for structural development of the region. 

A multi year drought prevented Turkana pastoralists from growing crops on their arid yet fertile land after all their livestock was stolen by cattle raiders. 

So I travelled to two regions in the East and in the North of the country where farmers and pastoralists have suffered from serious drought for the past 3 years, but have actually not had a normal harvest for almost 10 years. Food support for them is useless. They have to be able to adapt to changing climatic patterns. So development of a more efficient water supply, modern irrigation and advanced agricultural techniques are what is needed. 

In the east in the area of Mwingi I visited several water catchment areas where a small dam of just a few metres high can store enough rain water in the wet season to support several communities throughout the long dry season, even during a drought. Pilot projects where greenhouses and drip irrigation manage to dramatically reduce water consumption showed how it is possible to sustain life in this arid region. 

In the north around Isiolo no projects like this support the poor Turkana families I visited. Traditionally they were pastoralists with big herds of goats. Several years ago the small community I spoke to was visited by cattle raiders that, in one night, stole thousands of pieces of livestock leaving the whole community in devastation. The 78th Tank battalion in the army base just a few hundred meters away was not able to prevent this. 

After losing everything they tried to turn to agriculture to get back on their feet, but the continuing drought has made every attempted crop fail. They now survive by collecting firewood and making charcoal to be able to buy a little flour and sugar each day on which their children survive. 

It's cynical to be here knowing that two years ago I spent weeks trying to get some Dutch and international media interested in a story about the drought that was already internationally known of at the time. Oxfam International had issued a press release warning for the serious implications if nothing was done a the time. While I was trying to convince media I also tried to get permission to visit Dadaab refugee camp on the border with Somalia, by now the main media 'tourist' centre of the crisis (as a colleague I met here described it). Road access was impossible without an armed convoy and the many relief agencies and UN departments could not help me with a place on a relief flight unless I had a serious media outlet that was interested in the story. In the end I had to give up my attempts. The crisis was not urgent enough, other news was more important. 

So now it is important enough and the circus has landed in Kenya. It's sad that this is how the media work. But I will keep trying to attract attention for the lesser known or approaching crises of this world like we're doing in 'Disputed Waters'. And I'm happy to work for NGO's that focus on structural development that will not forget about a region after the emergency is over in the eyes of the world. 

No comments: