The worst drought in 60 years has hit the Horn of Africa, taking a terrible toll on crops, livestock, and people. Parts of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia have extremely limited access to food aid and other relief. Desperate conditions forced more than 150,000 people to flee into Kenya and Ethiopia from Somalia, burdening fragile host communities and overcrowding refugee camps. Refugees fled not only the drought, which has turned green pastures into golden fields of dust, but also the militant terrorist group Al Shabab, which seeks to impose its rule in Somalia through unspeakable violence and terror.
Those who have suffered are people like Ahamd Issaq, chief of a village called Sala-Jama. When he was a boy the elders of his village named the droughts that came once every 20 years. But now the droughts come so often they don't give them names.
Ahamad is a goat herder. Like his ancestors, his days are governed by the rise and fall of the sun. The sun that beat down last fall dried up much of the water supply and what water that was left was very salty, making it difficult for his herd to survive. If it wasn't for emergency water supplies provided by public and private organizations, including faith-based groups like Latter-day Saint (LDS) Charities, Ahamad and many others would not have survived to see drought conditions ease. Working with LDS, IRD provided relief to 22 vulnerable communities in southern and eastern Ethiopia, including Ahamad's, through water trucking and provision of water purification supplies. Last fall IRD and LDS supplied the emergency water needs of 31,000 people in severely affected villages.
While Ethiopia, Somalia and neighboring countries are recovering from the drought, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Famine Early Warning System has predicted that drought conditions could return in 2012. If it does, the results will once again be devastating. Millions of people in the Horn of Africa still lack adequate water supplies. If a drought does hit soon, many communities throughout the region would be unprepared to handle it. The result: Intense suffering and, very possibly, social and economic instability and even intensified conflict.
This can and must be avoided.
The solution is to help communities increase their water security and build resiliency to drought and other shocks. IRD and LDS, which have worked together since IRD's founding in 1998, are assisting by building water storage facilities in the region. These community storage facilities - called birkits - are cement water catchments with tin roofs. They are simple and easy to build and can be constructed at a reasonable price. As important, birkits require very little maintenance. This is critically important for communities without the governance structures of more developed areas.
For a relatively small lifetime investment, a birkit means an entire community has access to adequate water supplies no matter the external conditions. It is the kind of scalable, sustainable solution that, along with other assistance in hygiene and animal husbandry, and continued international assistance to improve governance structures, can minimize and eventually break the cycle of drought and famine in the Horn of Africa.
Clearly, non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups cannot achieve this alone. But they are important actors who share a commitment to helping the vulnerable and creating the conditions for stronger and more resilient communities. Working together, they can reach far more people, in a far shorter period of time, than they could on their own.
That can mean the difference between life and death for someone like Ahamad.