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Silver linings

By Ailsa Holloway

It is unusual that a story about drought turns out to be good news, but in southern Africa the recent drought has given rise to extensive cooperation, forward planning and a comprehensive approach on the part of governments and National Societies alike. If, paradoxically enough, the drought is compared to a storm cloud, the coordinated relief, disaster preparedness and vulnerability reduction that is happening in response to it is, without a doubt, the silver lining.

It was only three years ago, in 1992, that southern Africa faced “its worst drought in living memory”. Now, again in 1995, many of the region’s countries have had to brace themselves to withstand the brunt of yet another failed rainy season.

As is the case with all natural hazards, drought does not respect national borders. This year’s rainfall failure has affected all of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) member states,* and up to
13 million primarily rural southern Africans. Its effects are already felt at the macro-economic level as governments divert considerable resources from other activities to pay for imported grain. However, it is at the household level that the impact of this year’s drought is most painfully borne.

Fortunately, the stereotypic images of food relief convoys, widespread displacement and starvation associated with famine elsewhere in Africa have been avoided in southern Africa. This is due principally to the relatively well-developed transport infrastructure, stable governments, efficient drought and food security early warning systems, and a long history of cooperation between SADC’s member states.

The region’s Red Cross Societies are key actors in this effort, complementing the roles played by their national governments. In this year’s drought response, the Red Cross Societies of Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe launched a modest consolidated drought appeal valued at 3.7 million Swiss francs.


Working together

Building on their experience in 1992 and 1993, these National Societies have made a concerted effort this year not to duplicate the work of other partners. In practical terms, this has meant that national governments are primarily responsible for importing, storing and transporting food, leaving the Red Cross Societies and other non-governmental organisations to concentrate on identifying the most vulnerable households and targeting food distribution locally.

“It is an approach that maximises the comparative advantage and capacities of both partners, streamlines national operations, and allows for local flexibility,” Margareta Wahlström, the Federation’s Under Secretary General for Disaster Response and Operations Coordination, says. “It’s also an excellent example of a very efficient use of resources.”

Already, in Lesotho and Swaziland, the National Societies have conducted detailed household surveys in severely drought-affected districts to identify the most needy families. “This work, done by trained Red Cross volunteers, is laborious and time consuming and it requires considerable tact and sensitivity,” Andrea Wojnar Diagne, programme officer at the Federation, explains. “In Lesotho alone, the house-to-house assessment process entailed visiting nearly 1,100 villages in three isolated mountain districts where the assessment teams had to combat snowstorms as well as drought conditions.”

By providing an opportunity to work together, the drought is strengthening cooperation among the National Societies of the region, between the National Societies and their respective governments, and between the Federation and SADC at the regional level. The relationships that are being forged among the organisations can only serve them — and their beneficiaries — well in the future.

Preparedness and prevention

It is no coincidence that the Federation and SADC both launched consolidated regional drought appeals in June this year when the region’s harvest shortfall became clear. As early as September 1994, when meteorological data first indicated a high probability of drought, the Federation’s regional delegation in Harare and SADC’s regional food security unit had coordinated closely. Both organisations were well aware of likely constraints associated with international resource mobilisation and realised that their appeals would need to be consolidated and complementary in order to elicit donor support.

Already in late 1994, the Federation’s regional delegation obtained and disseminated regular meteorological updates on likely weather patterns, including behaviour of the “El Niño” southern oscillation phenomenon — alerting the region’s National Societies to the likelihood of drought. As early as February and April 1995, six National Societies met twice in Harare to develop and finalise their drought plans and budgets and by the end of May the consolidated appeal was ready to launch from Geneva. Finally, the Federation helped coordinate six Red Cross country operations, and streamline these with the actions of other partners.

“While this process may seem rather drawn out, at least compared to steps taken after a sudden onset natural disaster or refugee displacement, drought is a slow onset event,” Wojnar Diagne says. “So there is more time for detailed assessments of impact as well as better planning and coordination among the players involved. Such attention to detail and forward thinking are crucial in southern Africa, where drought is a recurrent event, affecting primarily subsistence farmers in the region’s semi-arid zones and isolated districts.”

Because drought is endemic throughout southern Africa, this year’s Red Cross operations are tackling the cause, not just reacting to the effects. They include drought mitigation and recovery elements as well as relief activities. The National Societies have decided to carry out targeted seed distribution, community income generation and water protection and conservation activities. These are practical drought counter measures intended to reduce the vulnerability of families at risk of recurrent periods of rainfall failure.

“The decision to incorporate preparedness and prevention measures into the appeal challenges the current funding orthodoxy which tends to separate relief assistance from devel-opment support,” Bekele Geleta, Director of the Federation’s Africa Department, says. “But, from a practical perspective, unless southern Africa’s marginal farmers are assisted to get back on their feet as quickly as possible, and unless their livelihoods are protected against repeated drought episodes, they will need food relief for many years to come. We don’t want to keep putting a plaster on the same wound, we want it to heal properly — forever.”

Just as the coastal dwellers of Bangladesh have learned that cyclones present a seasonal risk, the southern Africans living in semi-arid areas are increasingly aware that drought is an expected threat that they must live with and be prepared for.

In this year’s drought operations, the Red Cross Societies not only intend to provide food relief to alleviate present hardship. More importantly, they are committed to lowering drought risk for the long term. This is a collaborative effort between many partners — and an essential step towards reducing the vulnerability of many of southern Africa’s most drought-prone households to one of the region’s most costly recurrent threats.

* SADC member states: Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

Ailsa Holloway
Ailsa Holloway is a disaster preparedness delegate at the Federation’s regional delegation in Harare.

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