Rain in drought-hit East Africa brings changing humanitarian needs

By Oxfam

In drought-plagued East Africa, the short October-to-December rains have started to fall. While they are welcome—bringing relief in increased water availability and pasture—the hardships for countless herders and farmers are far from over. For many of the more than 13 million people affected by the drought and food crisis, the rains signal a shift in need and are likely to lead to increased requirements for health; shelter; and water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

The forecast predicts this short wet season will bring an average amount of rainfall to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Coupled with humanitarian assistance and anticipated decreases in locally produced cereal prices, the rain means that the food security situation in Kenya and Ethiopia is likely to improve over the next few months. But in southern Somalia, the situation remains dire, with an estimated four million people in crisis and 750,000 men and women experiencing famine.

In many areas of the region emergency conditions are expected to persist well into 2012. Households remain extremely vulnerable to additional shocks as the severe drought has depleted herders’ assets and reduced crop production. Several good seasons are required to rebuild herd sizes, improve harvests, and reduce debt levels.

The trouble with rain

In some areas flooding and mudslides are common during the rainy season. For example, in Ethiopia’s Somalia region localized flash floods have already been reported in areas along the Wabishabelle river, affecting an estimated 18,000 people with damage to crops and livestock.

The rain and a drop in temperature are also likely to kill cattle that have already been weakened by a lack of food and water—further undermining the ability of herding families to earn a living and recover from the drought.

In addition, the rains and the risk of contamination of water sources can lead to an increase in water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, acute watery diarrhoea (AWD), cholera, and hepatitis A. Outbreaks of vector-borne diseases, particularly those spread by mosquitos, such as malaria, dengue and Rift Valley Fever are likely during the rainy season, and increases in cases of pneumonia and respiratory tract infections are common. More than 1,200 cases of dengue have been confirmed in Kenya’s Mandera District since Sept. 23. Flooding in Turkana and Pokot, areas in northwest Kenya, has caused a spread of malaria in the Upper Rift Valley, with outbreaks in Turkana, Kakuma, and surrounding districts.

Displaced people within Somalia and those who have crossed into Kenya and Ethiopia are particularly vulnerable as many of them are living in overcrowded conditions, with limited access to water and sanitation facilities and inadequate shelter. Outbreaks of measles, acute watery diarrhoea (AWD), cholera, malaria, and pneumonia have already been reported in camps in Mogadishu. In Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya five measles-related deaths and 113 cases were reported during the last week of September.

But as people’s needs increase, the rain makes it harder to reach them: Rivers flood their banks, bridges break or get washed away, and roads become impassable. In Ethiopia, access to refugee camps in Dollo Ado is already challenging as the rains make airstrips and roads impassable.

Contingency planning

In Kenya, Oxfam is mapping the accessibility of certain areas and working with partners to devise contingency plans to meet the needs of people there. Public health promotion teams are doing environmental clean-up and awareness-raising campaigns. Boreholes are being rehabilitated and chlorine kits and water purification tabs have been distributed. In the areas where Oxfam has been distributing cash to vulnerable households which will be cut off during the rains, a double payment was made to cover the period between October and November so people do not go without.

In Ethiopia Oxfam has expanded its public health promotion and acute watery diarrhea preparedness activities, with a particular focus on women who manage water and sanitation at the household level. Oxfam teams are working with aid groups and other local partners to ensure a strong response to any outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea. As the rains commence, water trucking is being reduced and teams are supporting regional and zonal authorities to ensure emergency stocks and water treatment kits can be mobilized. Cash for work activities and market-support activities are ongoing and animal health interventions, such as vouchers for veterinary visits and vaccinations, have started up.

In Somalia Oxfam partners have been preparing for outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea by setting up distribution posts in camps for displaced people. The posts contain oral rehydration sachets, sugar, salt, soap for washing hands, and chlorine bleach. Partners have also increased the frequency and methods for public health messaging and are working with committees to oversee the water and sanitation services.

Concerns ahead

In Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, the UN, government, and non-governmental groups have prepared contingency plans to respond to any increase in needs: Strong coordination and monitoring is essential.

The delivery of food aid remains a key concern. In Kenya the World Food Programme (WFP) has reported delays in food aid distribution in Wajir, Garissa and Mandera as roads are impassable. Roads in Garissa and Hola, key entry points into the Dadaab refugee camps, are completely cut off.

Ongoing conflict, insecurity, and restrictions on the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Somalia are the key factors which will hinder a more effective response to the increased needs caused by the rains. For example, armed groups in many parts of South Central Somalia are not allowing mass public immunization campaigns despite outbreaks of deadly diseases like measles.

The recent military incursion by Kenyan forces into Somalia, as well as insecurity in refugee camps on the Kenyan side of the border, is also impacting on the humanitarian situation in certain areas of Kenya and Somalia. Fighting in Somalia is likely to cause further civilian displacement and casualties at a time when thousands of people risk imminent death due to famine.