Rains fail again in east Africa

Repeated failure of rains in eastern Africa demonstrate the link between climate change and security. Yemeni security forces foil an al-Qaeda plot. Two Colombian rebel groups announce possibility of alliance against government. The end of much-criticised UN-backed Kimenia II operated in eastern Congo is announced. The Philippines prepares for evacuation ahead of predicted volcanic eruption. All this and more in today's update.
Josephine Whitaker
17 December 2009

Rains across drought-stricken regions of east Africa have failed for the sixth year in a row, according to an appeal released by British charity Oxfam today. The failure of rains in October and November, despite early signs of hope, will lead to further threats to food security for millions in region. According to Oxfam, the current drought is the worst experienced in the region for twenty years, with rainfall in November less than five per cent of the normal level in parts of Kenya and Ethiopia.

This appeal comes just one day after another warning issued by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food, suggesting that “climate change is a ticking time bomb for global food security.” The UN special rapporteur, Olivier de Schuter, called for the climate change policies currently being hashed out in Copenhagen this week to consider the right to food of millions of people, in order to ensure the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable groups is minimised.

The openSecurity verdict: The warnings of the past two days issued by Oxfam and the UN’s special rapporteur underline the deleterious impacts of climate change on human security. According to the Oxfam appeal, the humanitarian consequences of continued drought, already severe, are set to worsen across east Africa as further rains are not due until April, meaning that affected people face at least another six months of hardship. The failure of rains in eastern Africa have hit the Turkana region of northern Kenya particularly hard, where less than twelve millimetres of rain have fallen in the last six months. In the Central Highlands and Ogaden regions of Ethiopia, less than five percent of the rain expected has fallen.

Drought has produced yet another round of crop failures for east Africa’s farmers, with malnutrition and disease already widespread. Oxfam reports that in Turkana, one in three people now suffer from malnutrition, while in the Ngorongoro region of Tanzania, there has been a recent spike in malnutrition in under-fives. As in most cases, malnutrition is accompanied by a rise in communicable diseases, seen in the recent outbreak of cholera that has claimed over one hundred lives in Kenya.

The drought is also hitting cattle farmers, an integral part of many east African economies, particularly hard. According to Oxfam’s research, over 1.5million cattle, worth more than £220 million, have already died from factors connected to the drought. Those that survive are being sold at rock bottom rates by farmers desperate for cash.

Unsurprisingly, aid agencies and analysts predict that food prices will rise as a result of these factors. The numbers of people in need of food aid is also expected to rise, as the impact of the failed rains makes itself felt on the food security situation of many of the most vulnerable people in east Africa.

According to a separate press release from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the food security situation in Chad is also deteriorating fast. UNOCHA reported yesterday that the numbers of children suffering from severe and severe acute malnutrition in Chad has not dropped off with the start of the harvest season, as usually occurs. UNOCHA’s report attributes persistently high malnutrition rates to the combination of late and sporadic rainfall during the growing season, population growth – particularly has a result of the influx of refugees from neighbouring Sudan – and food price rises. Government sources have revealed that the production of cereals in Chad have dropped by one third on last year’s levels, while state grain reserve levels remain dangerously low.

The growing problem of food insecurity in eastern Africa highlights the clear link between climate change and human security. Failed rains, as a result of changes in climate and weather, worsen the already serious problem of food insecurity for many extremely vulnerable groups in this region. Such food insecurity may also contribute to increased resource competition and conflict, which some analysts believe may be directly linked to climate change.

The relevance of these warnings should not be lost on climate change policy makers. As Olivier de Schuter noted, there is a clear link between climate change and human rights policy, and there needs to be greater coordination between climate change and human rights regimes if the effects of climate change on the most vulnerable are to be minimised.

Yemen al-Qaeda plot foiled

Government security forces have killed 34 suspected al-Qaeda militants and arrested seventeen more in Yemen, the defence ministry reports. According to sources, militants planning bomb attacks against a variety of domestic and foreign targets in Yemen were intercepted by a coordinated operation involving the air force and army in southern Abyan province, early on Thursday morning. One security source stated that “the operation led to the foiling of an al-Qaeda plan aiming to hit foreign and local interests and schools, including eight suicide bombers who were preparing explosive belts to carry out the plan.”

This operation has been seen as a major victory for the Yemeni government against al-Qaeda, amidst growing international concern about the government’s ability to effectively to contain such militancy within its borders. Despite a number of al-Qaeda-attributed attacks against low-level targets in Yemen in recent months, analysts fear that the government – also battling the Shia al-Houthi insurgency in the north and a restive separatist movement in the south – may not be able to prevent al-Qaeda from establishing a safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the middle east.

Colombia rebel groups may unite

Two of the biggest rebel groups in Colombia have announced plans to unite against the government’s security forces in a surprise joint statement released on Anncol, the New Colombia News Agency website, a source well-known for being the first to publish statements made by Colombia’s rebel groups. The statement, published by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the Farc), and the National Liberation Army (ELN), described the two groups as on the way towards working for unity, and willing to unite with “force and belligerence” against the government.

Analysts are divided about the significance of such an alliance for Colombia’s 45 year old conflict. Some believe that it could have a serious impact, while others are more sceptical, claiming that inroads made by the government of Alvaro Uribe since he came to power in 2002 have irrevocably weakened rebel groups, meaning that even their combined forces would not pose a serious threat to the government.

There is also scepticism about the ability of the two groups to work together. Previous attempts by Farc, believed to be the country’s largest left-wing rebel group, to merge with the smaller ELN ended in failure. However, although differences of background and ideology could hinder a successful alliance, it is believed that government initiatives under Uribe since 2002, strongly backed by the US but criticised by regional left-wing leaders, have pushed rebel groups onto the defensive, forcing them to try different approaches.  

Much-criticised UN operation in eastern DRC brought to an end

The ending of the heavily criticised UN supported Kimia II operation against rebel groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was announced on Wednesday by Alan Doss, the UN special envoy to the DRC, during a Security Council meeting on the UN’s peacekeeping mission there. Kimia II, under which UN forces provided support to the DRC’s military in an operation against Rwandan Hutu rebel groups operating in the eastern DRC, has been widely criticised by rights groups for the abuses inflicted by Congolese forces against civilians.

Although Doss’s statement claimed that the main objective of the operation, to disperse rebels and undermine their ability to exploit the DRC’s mineral wealth, “has been largely achieved”, human rights groups and aid agencies have lambasted the operation for its impact upon civilians. The UN human rights rapporteur, in a recent visit to the DRC, criticised the operation for a lack of planning for civilian protection, and the US-based organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed, in a report released earlier this week, that almost 1,500 civilians had been killed between January and September 2009 as a result of army operations.

Doss’s statement acknowledged the “very serious humanitarian consequences” of the operation. However, the accusations of abuse have been denied by the DRC’s security forces, who say they are working on improving forces’ accountability. Meanwhile, debate about the future of MONUC, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC, rages on . A forthcoming session of the Security Council is expected to renew MONUC’s mandate for a further five months, allowing time for a reconfiguration of MONUC’s activities to focus more on training government security forces.

Mayon eruption expected soon

Vulcanologists in the Philippines are predicting that Mayon, the country’s most active volcano, may experience a hazardous eruption very soon. As the volcano spews ash more than half a kilometre into the air, and lava flows and mudslides are recorded down its slopes, authorities in the Philippines are moving to evacuate local residents.

About 30,000 people had been evacuated from danger zones in a six-kilometre radius of Mayon by Wednesday afternoon, according to Norberto Gonzales, the defence secretary. Officials say they may have to spend up to four months in temporary shelters. Local government officials have also announced that “the gates have been closed” to farmers who insist on tending their crops within the danger zones. These measures form part of the government’s zero-casualty strategy, which may ultimately involve evacuating over 70,000 people.

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