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East Africa drought: International community could and should have prevented this crisis

08 Jul 2011

An older Ethiopian man in drought-stricken Borena region.Pictures of mothers carrying children arriving at camps in northern Kenya are hitting the airwaves this week. Many have walked for days or weeks to get there, carrying their children and a few possessions.

They are exhausted and hungry and in desperate need of help. What the TV crews haven't picked up yet is the few lucky older people who have also walked or, in some cases, been wheeled in wheelbarrows or on make-shift carts to get to the camps.

Over 12,000 of the people in the Dodoma camp in northern Kenya, home to nearly 400,000 and counting desperate refugees, are over the age of sixty. But they are the "lucky ones", still in need of additional support and food, but finally protected and cared for by a system that is stretched but working to avert a full-fledged famine.

Older people left behind

And where are the rest of the grandparents, the older people who have survived the major famines of 1973 and 1984? Many of them are too weak to make the long journey and are left behind to look after vulnerable people, such as pregnant women, small children and disabled and sick people.

When I travelled to one of the worst drought affected areas in Ethiopia - the Borana region on the southern border with Kenya - in the last week of June, we came across settlements where as much as half the population was over the age of sixty.

Lying around these settlements were dozens of animal carcasses, the dead bodies of animals that have endured two of the driest years in sixty years. Animals whose grazing lands have been reduced due to climate change brought about by the excesses of people living in developed countries. And by the inability of these rich countries to respond in time. 

Governments must do more

HelpAge and other international organisations working in Ethiopia have known that the situation was serious since before Christmas. The early warning systems that help to prevent the horror of 1984 from ever happening again are in place and working well. Weather predictions showed that this drought was going be very bad and where it was going to hit.

However, the governments in East Africa need to do more and do better to help prepare for these recurring crises. The people who are suffering the most have done little or nothing to create this crisis. It is climate change and the failure of governments in the developed world to respond in time that have done this. It is now time for this to change.

HelpAge and CAFOD have joined together to respond to this crisis, working with four local organisations to provide money so that families can buy what they need, especially food and feed for the livestock that are still alive. CARE International is another organisation that is including older people in their nutrition response in Borana.

It's a start, but much more needs to be done, from an early stage, to make sure that the needs of older people are addressed. This includes making sure organisations that are assessing people's needs in a particular area include older people.

Long term response needed

Our response started before the media and major donors took notice - we managed to persuade the UN to give us money, for which we are very grateful - and will make sure the pastoralists who are suffering most will have a livelihood to return to when it's over. 

Too many responses are short term, and focus on solving the immediate need only. There is an urgent need to increase funding for those affected now, but as Baroness Amos pointed out on the BBC on 5 July, it is also vital to ensure that future crises - and there is no doubt there will be more droughts in East Africa - are prevented at an earlier stage. That the early warning systems are allowed to work, that donors don't wait until starving children hit the headlines again to respond.

And from my point of view, as Country Director for HelpAge in Ethiopia, the other tragedy is those who are usually missed out by the response and prevention in the first place: the older people! These are the people who can tell when the drought is coming, using age-old techniques and knowledge.

They also know how to prevent conflict from breaking out over scarce resources and they know how to resolve conflicts that do break out. They are respected by their families and communities and if they are involved they can be an incredible tool in helping to prevent crises like the current one from escalating.

Including older people in all responses

The older people suffering in the current crisis need specific and tailored responses, so they can continue being the amazing resource to their families and communities that they are. For example, if food is given out, older people need special food rations that they can chew and digest. Food distributions need to make sure that older people can actually get the food - some may be bedridden, for example.

Older people also have specific health needs that are usually not included in agencies' response plans, such as medication for heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure. 

HelpAge is uniquely positioned to respond to such needs, but in a situation like the current east African crisis it would be much better if all organisations who are responding, whether they are UN agencies or international NGOs, would include older people in all of their programmes.

Read more about the drought in Ethiopia

HelpAge's work is supported by our sister organisation Age UK. Please donate to Age UK's East Africa appeal for vulnerable older people affected by the devastating drought in Ethiopia.

Age UK is raising money together with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for the East Africa Crisis Appeal. The DEC is a consortium of 14 aid agencies working together in times of disasters and emergencies.

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Hi Alison, I'm a producer with a national radio program in Canada and we'd love to line up an interview with you. Please respond to my e-mail if that's something you might be able to do. Thanks, Kristin

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Author profile

Alison Rusinow
Country: UK/USA
Job title: Country Programme Director, Ethiopia

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International or its donors.