Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Namibia battles worst drought in decades

Opuwo, Namibia - The Tjikundi family sits around a small fire boiling a tin pot filled with water and maize - the only food that's available this day. A band of children crawl about, chewing on plastic tubing, and chase the visitors with animated curiosity.

The homestead is spectacular in its bareness. Soft, dry sand interrupted only by rocks and boulders fashion a molten envy for a lighter, brighter time. The livestock kraal is empty. So too are the granaries.

Scraggy roosters gawk and peck at the dust with fraught expectation while a domestic cat, at total odds with the environment, purrs and curls around people's ankles.

"This year is very bad because we have lost all our cattle," Mukaokondunga Tjikundi, in her early 20s, told Al Jazeera. "Sometimes the children go to bed with empty stomachs. Sometimes they just drink some water and go to sleep."

Hunger and hardship are recurring themes in Kunene, the northwest province in Namibia, considered the hardest-hit region by a drought many consider the worst in decades.

Almost one million people out of Namibia’s 2.3 million population face moderate to serious levels of food insecurity. The Namibian government in May estimated this year's harvest would yield 42 percent less than 2012.

In Kunene, two years of failed rains have devastated millet and maize plantations, dried up watering holes for livestock, and forced a population to search for precarious water supplies. Animals drink stagnant water in dry riverbeds, while some Namibians dig for water across the province and guard any source found with little wooden fences.


"If people can resort to [drinking] dirty water, more are likely to suffer from water-borne diseases and the health situation is likely to deteriorate for animals and humans," Jack Ndemena, water and sanitation officer with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told Al Jazeera.

"There is nothing and if the rains don’t come, it is going to be a catastrophe."

In May, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba was forced to declare a state of emergency and requested $33.7 million in international support to avert a crisis. Recognising the strain across the country, the IFRC and UNICEF launched appeals for $1.2m and $7.4m, respectively.

President Hifikepunye Pohamba has appealed for aid [EPA]

But little aid has arrived.

On September 2, Algeria donated $1m in food aid but the reaction from the rest of the international community has been poor.

Experts say Namibia’s status as a middle-income country hasn’t helped its appeals. Despite its wealth, the country suffers from high levels of income inequality. One-third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, and Namibia ranked 120 out of 187 countries on the 2012 UNDP Human Development Index.

Malnutrition is the second-most common cause of death recorded for children under five, even in non-drought years. And with the onset of this year’s drought, an estimated 109,000 children under five are at risk of acute malnutrition.

"Namibia still does not feed itself, and the middle-income classification comes from livestock, mining and fisheries industries - [this] does not provide an accurate situation on the ground," Cousins Gwanama, head of the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Namibia in Windhoek, told Al Jazeera.

And it is unlikely the situation is about to get better.


With little rainfall predicted for later this year, farmers have described the drought as among the harshest in a generation. Granaries are empty as few crops were planted last year. With plateaus unsuitable for grazing, many pastoralist farmers have been forced to leave their homes and families and herd their livestock to higher ground with more vegetation, often involving a few days’ walk.

Accustomed to little rainfall, farmers have survived in semi-arid regions of Namibia for decades. But the total absence of precipition has left many perplexed and concerned, their farms lurching towards economic ruin.

"I thought we understood the environment, nature, but we are almost confused and don’t know what to expect," farmer Toivo Ruhozu told Al Jazeera.

"If the government doesn’t help, we will just have to face death." More