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07 July 2011

Worst drought in 60 years: 12 million Africans face 'fight for survival'

Rohit Kachroo / NBC News -The carcass of a giraffe on a roadside north of Nairobi, Kenya.

WAJIR, Kenya - At first glance, the massive drought which has swept across Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia appears to be a crisis caused entirely by nature.

As we traveled north through Kenya into one of the worst-hit areas, the lush green of the Nairobi suburbs disappeared into gray sand and dry earth. In three hours, I counted the carcasses of 27 cattle by the roadside, and one giraffe - apparently killed because the land could not sustain them. The striking images of the landscape seem to represent a deceptively simple assessment of the drought: the dirty work of Mother Nature.

"The only reason for all the suffering in this region is the lack of rain," one desperate doctor told me as he lifted up yet another severely malnourished baby so that he could be weighed. The doctor is wrong.

Witness the outbreak of famine or drought and you'll usually see that there has been an outbreak of war nearby. In this case, the lawlessless of war-torn Somalia is driving people into neighboring Kenya. In Ethiopia, high inflation and fast-rising food prices have also forced people out. Many of those refugees have been competing with the recently killed animals that we saw on our journey for water and food. Consider that and the deadly cocktail behind this current crisis doesn't look so basic. Human hands are all over this.

Kenya's refugee camps are packed. Dadaab, the biggest refugee camp in the world, was originally built for 90,000 people but now has 380,000 refugees, UNICEF officials told Reuters this week. About 10,000 more stream in each week.

Bloodshed and turmoil
Many of the children arriving are stick-thin and desperately hungry, fleeing the impact of dry weather. But there are adults who appear to be well-nourished. Many are escaping their homeland because life in a stinking, over-run camp is better than the bloodshed and turmoil back home.

It all suggests that the solution might not be as simple as some donor appeals might imply. Aid agencies asking for tens of millions of dollars in donations will be able to do great work easing the anguish of many people.

Jane Cocking, Oxfam's humanitarian director, told The Associated Press that 12 million people face "a fight for survival". Oxfam hopes to raise $80 million, its largest ever appeal for Africa.

The U.N. has said the Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the worst droughts since the early 1950s.

But aid groups won't be able solve the crisis on their own. They can't end war. They can't cut food prices.

Cynics will say that it is a reason for the world not to get too involved. Many people have suggested the same thing to me. "This happens every year," they moan; on that point they're correct. Some parts of the region are so familiar with drought that they are synonymous with it. These are re-occuring crises which cannot be solved by even the greatest donor appeals.

But although the cause of the crisis is complex, the consequence is simple - painfully simple. This year's drought and "pre-famine" do appear to be particularly bad. The United Nations believes that it might lead to a "human tragedy of unimaginable proportions" - a grave warning indeed. Charities say that the world must act now to avoid a catastrophe.

But after this crisis, there may be many more - a tragedy in itself - because this is a combination of drought, refugee crisis and food crisis which has been made by men as well as nature. However, aid workers say that is no reason to look away.

- World Bog from NBC News