The overlooked African drought is only the start

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By Erin Delman

Last week in my biogeochemistry class, I gave a presentation on the state of the global water supply. The project focused on the impending future of a planet with an inadequate availability of the resource. According to the United Nations, 1.2 billion people live in regions of physical water scarcity, and this number is rapidly increasing. Countries are already fighting over allocation of rivers and lakes, municipalities are preemptively spending millions of dollars on desalination plants, and governments are planning extensive conservation measures.

Yet nothing captures the gravity of the situation quite like the conditions in the Horn of Africa. A two-year drought has plagued the northeastern region of the continent, leaving 12.4 million people at risk in Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Ehtiopia, Eritrea and Uganda. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya receives over 1,000 new arrivals each day. A quarter of the new arrivals’ children are malnourished. The Dollo Ado refugee camp in Ethiopia received 54,000 new arrivals in 2011, and 50 percent of the children are malnourished.

The drought, the worst in 60 years, has caused the prices of food to skyrocket, forcing many to abandon their homes in search of sustenance. Officials from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs explained that there is no likelihood of improvement until 2012. Worse, the UN appeals for international aid are only half-funded.

The situation in the Horn of Africa is disconcerting on multiple levels. Firstly, the need for aid is dire. The international community must recognize the urgency of the situation and rally to support these affected countries. Secondly, the crisis is indicative of future conditions. As global climate change progresses, more regions will have drastic changes in their climatic conditions; some places will become wetter and others will become drier. This change in the distribution of water will increase the amount of people affected by diminishing quality and supply.

Finally, the drought in Africa is virtually unknown among my peers. During my presentation, I attempted to use the current predicament as an example as to why we need immediate policy action, but my analogy was met with blank stares. There is very little in  American news about the conditions on the African continent. Occasionally, a movie star will make a plea for donations, but those requests are far and few between.

The lack of coverage in the media is unacceptable. Firstly, when 12.4 million people are facing immediate, life-threatening conditions, the world should know about it. More important, however, is the fact that these crises will become more frequent and intense. Perhaps Americans would be prone to act sustainably if they saw the legitimacy and severity of the impending threats of climate change.

This is not an endemic issue, restricted to the remote regions of the poorest continent on Earth.  Sure, right now, only impoverished Africans are feeling the effects of the human-induced changes to our planet. But we should all take notice, for these problems will not disappear but will only spread  closer to our home.

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