As part of a special World Leaders Forum event, East African officials representing Djibouti, Somalia and Uganda joined Columbia University faculty to discuss a little-known, but complex challenge: areas marked by parched soil and extremely limited rainfall known as drylands. For pastoral communities dependent on fresh, abundant pasture and water for raising livestock, extreme hunger, conflict and poverty are a regular part of daily life.
View a slideshow to learn more about the challenges facing drylands communities, as well as potential solutions.
The United Nations estimates that drylands make up more than 40 percent of the earth’s surface; in Africa, these regions account for 60 percent of the continent. The term “drylands” is often defined as areas where average annual rainfall is less than 700 mm (26 inches), compared to, for example, New York City, which receives about 49.7 inches (1260 mm). According to Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, however, drylands experience wild fluctuations and variability in rainfall leaving millions of people in extreme drought or floods. Rainfall can drop as low as 50 mm or rise to 2000 mm in the same location.
“What’s most spectacular is the climate context of these changes. These years come in rows. You can have five years in a row where you are wiped out by floods, 10 years in a row…that’s what happens in these places, and that makes for a significant challenge,” said Lall, who is also the Alan and Carol Silberstein Professor of Earth & Environmental Engineering and Civil Engineering. Conditions created by alternating prolonged periods of flood or drought create dire circumstances for populations without a wealth of high-demand resources such as oil. It is clear, said Lall, that “climate has a major role to play in final outcomes such as income.”
In early 2010, Columbia’s Earth Institute
launched the Drylands Initiative
in partnership with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) to expedite development in seven neighboring East African countries, including those represented at the event, as well as Kenya, Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and Eritrea. Under the initiative, participating countries will receive assistance to boost livestock production, build up health, sanitation, water and education infrastructures, and improve road, electricity and communication networks, among other critical areas.
“The drier the environment, the tougher the challenge,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs
, director of the Earth Institute and Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and professor of health policy and management. These arid zones, said Sachs, are the “toughest development challenge on the planet.” In addition to drought, hunger and epidemics, the link between conflict and lack of resources as a result of environmental degradation in places like Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea is “unmistakable,” he said.
A hallmark of the initiative is the belief that pastoralism and agro-pastoralism—livelihoods based on raising livestock or a combination of farming and livestock rearing—is a valid and viable way to achieve socioeconomic development. Boosted by science-based interventions in energy, water, other technologies and ecosystem management, such development may be met faster. An example of this can be seen in the village of Dertu, in northern Kenya, where efforts have been ongoing since 2006 through the Millennium Villages Project
, an effort led by the Earth Institute and its partners, to help poor communities end poverty.
The successful outcomes of Dertu show that development in the drylands is “very challenging, but at the same time, doable,” according to Belay Begashaw
, director of the Earth Institute’s Millennium Development Goals Centre for East and Southern Africa
, which is based in Nairobi and provides support to governments and other stakeholders in the region to achieve development targets. “The main objective of this project is to bring dispossessed communities into mainstream economic development.” The second goal, said Begashaw, who has more than 20 years of experience in agricultural and rural development, and once served as the minister of agriculture for Ethiopia, is “overcoming misconceptions of the drylands systems, which would bring hope to millions of people who have suffered from neglect for years.”
In northeastern Uganda, the area of Karamoja is known to be among the driest and poorest regions in the country. According to the U.N., in the Moroto district, part of Karamoja, average life expectancy is just 32.87 years, and the literacy rate is 13 percent. As a result of the lack of water, food insecurity and other resources, conflict and violence have deeply affected the region. “The people of Karamoja are beginning to realize that they cannot sustain the lifestyle of nomadism,” said Siba Rukikare, head of the Drylands Program in Karamoja for the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda. “If people are going to settle down, they have to have water.”
The government of Uganda is now looking into interventions that will dam water of existing rivers and tap underground wells to provide water to underserved communities. Rukikare is hopeful. “We were excited when we were approached by the Drylands Initiative, because the integrated approach is really what we are talking about… Very soon we hope to have a peaceful Karamoja.”
Also participating in the World Leaders Forum discussion were Abukar A. Arman, Somali Special Envoy to the U.S., and Robe Olhaye, ambassador to the U.S., the U.N. and Canada from the Republic of Djibouti.