Steve Connor: Even rain brings no relief

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The drought in northern Kenya is part of a wider problem affecting an estimated 23 million people in seven countries across East Africa, who have suffered for several years from the effects of erratic rainfall, poor water management and crop failures.

This part of Africa has always been notorious for droughts but in recent years they seem to have become more frequent and have affected a larger number of people, partly because of an expanding population and the pressures that creates on a semi-arid landscape.

Earlier this week, Oxfam issued a warning that the drought affecting Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda has produced the worst humanitarian crisis its workers had seen in more than 10 years. Malnutrition is above emergency levels in many areas and hundreds of thousands of cattle have died or were dying, the aid agency said.

Although the rains had failed for three consecutive years in much of northern Kenya, John Magrath, a climate specialist at Oxfam, said that the problem was not always a lack of rainfall but a lack of consistent, reliable rainfall. When the rains did come, they often resulted in torrential downpours that caused flooding and havoc and did little good in terms of useful crop irrigation, Mr Magrath said.

The meteorological data for the region was poor but anecdotal reports had indicated that rainfall patterns had changed in recent years, he said. There was also reliable data showing the average temperatures of the region had risen, which increases evaporation and causes the soil to dry out more quickly, he said.

"Most climate models predict that this part of Africa and the Horn of Africa will actually get wetter with climate change but that doesn't seem to be happening. All the indications are that it is getting drier," Mr Magrath said.

In Kenya, Oxfam estimates that there are 3.8 million people – a 10th of the population – who are now in need of emergency aid brought on mainly by a dramatic rise in food prices, which have risen nearly fourfold above normal levels.

One in six children are acutely malnourished in Somalia, where the armed conflict has exacerbated the problems caused by the drought. In Ethiopia, the aid agency estimates, nearly 14 million people are at risk of severe hunger.

The big worry now is that the rainy season, which is due to start in the coming weeks, may not bring much relief.

On previous form, what rain does fall could come as a short-lived deluge, causing floods and destroying what is left of the land.

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