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Predicting and Mitigating Drought in Africa

Although natural disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons and tornadoes are often covered more extensively by media outlets, droughts often have the most devastating impact in many parts of the world, particularly developing nations. Families in some parts of Africa are dependent on agriculture for survival, and droughts, particularly in East Africa, can create food shortages, leading to serious and prolonged consequences for millions.

Predicting droughts has been a long-term challenge, but some progress is being made. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) set up the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) after the 1984-85 Ethiopian drought; it has tracked East Africa's climate and vegetation data over the past 15 years and is now capable of projecting low rainfall, which often leads to drought.

Watching the Skies

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), droughts can have serious implications for families living in poverty. As droughts severely affect crop yields, food scarcity is one of the greatest challenges facing people in drought-stricken areas, leading to malnutrition and vulnerability to disease.

In addition, severe droughts can displace large numbers of people, placing additional strain on already-limited resources in areas that aren't directly affected by drought. As more people compete for food and safe drinking water, the risk of communicable diseases spreading throughout the population increases.

Another effect drought can have on an area is the displacement of health workers. As water becomes increasingly scarce, health care professionals are often forced to relocate to other areas due to the difficulties of operating in a region affected by drought. This can further jeopardize the health of children and families living in poverty.

A Unified Approach

The problem of drought is so serious, many senior officials at the World Health Organization and other groups have called for heightened awareness of drought's impact on developing nations, focusing more on prevention and preparation, rather than just reaction.

"[Our] experience shows that sound policies grounded in science and shared knowledge are the first, and the best, line of defense against drought and the basic foundation for drought risk management," said Ann Tutwiler, special representative of José Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization, speaking at a high-level meeting to address drought awareness in March 2013. "We must boost national capacity to cope before a drought occurs, preventing the decline into disaster. Unless we secure a shift towards such policies, we face the prospect of repeated humanitarian catastrophe stemming from drought, and the persistent threat drought poses to global food security."

Adapting to Adversity

Although accurately predicting drought is challenging, some countries, such as Ethiopia, are adopting a proactive approach to coping with severe weather conditions. Drought is one of the most serious challenges to food security in Ethiopia, and the country has a high infant mortality rate due to malnutrition and other factors that can stem from prolonged periods of low rainfall.

However, some farmers have turned to crop diversification in order to mitigate the potential damage of drought. Although not typically considered a staple crop in Ethiopia, potatoes are becoming an increasingly popular choice for many farmers because of their resilience in times of drought. According to researchers at Cornell University, fewer than 74,000 acres of potatoes were grown in Ethiopia in 1970, compared to 395,000 acres today. Also, ChildFund provides water-catchment containers and borehole wells that help keep water supplies available during dry seasons.

Scientists, agriculture experts and global development agencies are working to alleviate the impact of drought in Africa and elsewhere, but there is much to be done. One way to help is to make a donation to ChildFund's Essentials for Survival fund, which provides children in greatest need with water, food and health care.

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