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Disasters and development in East Africa

Daniel D.C. Don Nanjira

Despite countless disasters in East Africa, no data are available about their frequency, complexity, or magnitude. The Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) was formed in 1986 to strengthen the disaster preparedness capabilities of six East African states (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan, and Uganda). But IGADD should be strengthened and its mandate expanded to include other nations in the region and other issues besides drought and desertification. Millions have already suffered from disasters in East Africa and things will get worse unless policies change and corrective measures are taken by the East African states and the international community to strengthen disaster preparedness and to make the area self-reliant. The countries of East Africa must coordinate regional research efforts and implement regional strategies to conserve the soil and the environment and to develop agricultural self-sufficiency.

The Sudano-Sahelian belt

In 1986, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda (part of the Sudan subregion) formed an Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Desertification, better known as IGADD. IGADD was based at Djibouti. This paper is about that group of IGADD countries - plus Burundi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania. These countries are part of the Sudano-Sahelian region, which the UN’s 1977 Conference on Desertification defined as “the belt extending across Africa South of the Sahara and North of the Equator from the Atlantic Ocean on the West to the Indian Ocean on the East.” The Sudano-Sahelian belt is a zone of arid and semiarid land bordering the southern edges of the great Sahara Desert. The belt extends from the Atlantic coast almost 2,600 miles across Africa between the latitudes of 10 and 20 degrees north. Broadly speaking, it stretches 3,500 miles, from Mauritania to Somalia, and includes Djibouti. These 2 million square miles are one of the least developed regions in the world. All life in the region depends heavily on sparse and variable rainfall.

IGADD was an attempt to strengthen national and East African disaster preparedness capabilities to deal systematically with the common problems of drought and desertification, and to improve disaster prevention, long overdue in East Africa. These governments wanted to pool resources, coordinate their recovery and development efforts, implement a common strategy to combat drought and desertification, and develop and promote the funding and implementation of cooperative subregional projects.

The IGADD projects have so far concentrated on a food security and early warning system, the development of interregional communications, animal health, and agricultural research and related manpower development. IGADD is basically a subregional development organization with a total land surface of 5.2 million square kilometers - 23 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa. The subregion’s arid and semiarid lowlands receive less than 400 millimeters of rainfall a year. Farmlands cover more than 36 million hectares, or 7 percent of the IGADD’s total surface. Forests occupy 94 million hectares (about 19 percent) of the land surface, and permanent pastures cover 139 million hectares, or about 28 percent. The rest of the land - 41 percent - is unproductive. IGADD’s inland water surfaces cover 31 million hectares, but woodlands and grasslands are the backbone of the subregion.

IGADD countries have a population of about 100 million, about 26 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s entire population. Population growth in East Africa is among the world’s highest - 3 percent by World Bank estimates. Between 1972 and 1987, the population grew from 63.4 million to 103.1 million. Kenya, recently said to have the world’s highest population growth rate at 4.1 percent, is now said to have a growth rate of 3.5 percent a year. If this rate is maintained, IGADD’s population will jump from 100 million in 1987 to 168 million in 2000. This is an alarming trend. About 76 percent of the IGADD countries’ population is believed to inhabit rural areas, including 65 million sedentary farmers and about 11 million nomads and seminomads. About 40 percent of IGADD’s 25 million town-dwellers live in cities, the largest of which by 1987 estimates were Addis Ababa (1.6 million), Nairobi (1.5 million), and Khartoum (1.1 million).

Most of the IGADD countries’ economies are agricultural, except Djibouti, whose economy is based on nomadic pastoral and related services. Agriculture contributes most to the gross national product (GNP) in Ethiopia and Somalia (48 percent). Services prevail in the Sudan (51 percent) and Kenya (48 percent). In Uganda and Djibouti, small-scale agricultural farming predominates. All told, there are about 12 million farming families - but no IGADD nation is self-sufficient in cereal.

Livestock in IGADD nations is dominated by smallholder production. About 2.3 million pastoral families have about 96 million tropical livestock units. Foreign exchange shortages are serious and health conditions are generally poor. Life expectancy ranges from 44 years in Somalia to 52 in Kenya - by far the lowest of any region in the world. Djibouti and Uganda fall below dietary standards set by WHO.

The East African disaster belt

The so-called Third World countries seem to suffer more from disasters than the developed nations. Why this is so is not clear. It may be because of political turmoil and economic exploitation in developing areas. It may be because their location subjects them to the geological and climatic forces of nature that occur mostly in the tropics. It may be because of the unholy alliance between disasters and development; because of the poverty syndrome; because Third World countries lack the resources to respond to disasters, which often destroy the infrastructure crucial to their socioeconomic development; because poverty, inadequate health care, and chronic food shortages make them susceptible to epidemics.

To the natural disasters so common in Africa have been added those of humans living collectively. Population growth has outpaced agricultural production. Arable land is scarce and expensive so low-income families that cannot afford land and decent housing are forced to move to shanties or other vulnerable housing in marginal areas such as the slopes of steep hills, along riverbanks and in flood-prone areas, in artificially reclaimed areas, active volcanic zones, and unsafe houses not designed to withstand extreme events.

East African economies are vulnerable to perilous events and East Africa has been prone to disasters from time immemorial. But the past 30 years have brought catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. East Africa’s natural hazard belt is characterized by heavy rains, floods, landslides, drought, and desertification. East Africa’s economic vulnerability to these disasters is aggravated by armed conflicts that swell the ranks of displaced persons and refugees. The gravest toll from natural disasters is the result of drought, desertification, and to some extent of pest infestation.

The East African economies are small economies, mainly agricultural in nature, situated in a natural hazard zone. These economies are highly specialized. Each country normally exports one or two primary commodities. So the economies are highly vulnerable to the vagaries of international trade, inflation, fluctuating prices for oil and other commodities, and other external shocks the countries cannot control. These countries face severe balance of payments and foreign exchange problems.

The East African economies are among the least developed in the world by any measure: by per capita GDP; proportion of the labor force outside the agricultural sector; and per capita social facilities, energy use, and road mileage. The East African peoples are among the world’s most dependent upon imported manpower for jobs requiring specialized training and skill; imports of fuel for energy and basic food for consumption; capital imports for economic modernization; and external determinants for economic growth. They also depend for their livelihood on the weather and a healthy ecological balance - and both let them down.

East Africa is part of Sub-Saharan Africa, the only region in the world where per capita food production has declined. Famine, hunger, and malnutrition are the result not only of drought, disease, and flooding, but of the ever-widening gap between the rate of agricultural (especially food) production and the rapid population growth rate, especially in the last 30 years. Hunger and famine accelerate the exodus of rural people fleeing drought in search of water and food for themselves and their livestock. They also increase the need for food imports. Imports of food aid to meet emergency needs divert resources from longer-term planning. Regular supplies of emergency food retard development.

Africa south of the Sahara has the highest population growth in the developing world. It also has the most developing countries in the world, some of which - Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Somalia - are also among the poorest. Africa’s soils are high in iron and aluminum (laterite) and are mostly infertile. The iron and aluminum compounds become hard on exposure to the sun and air. Sand and laterite erode easily and hold little water. This, plus erratic, deficient rainfall, results in severe shortages of water and animal feed. The resulting devastation of crops and livestock has fed rural migration, rapid urbanization, rapid urban population growth, and the bottlenecks that accompany it. Meeting Africa’s unmet needs requires systematic water control (irrigation) and research and development into how to improve seeds and produce higher yielding crops.

African agriculture has been heavily shaped by policies designed to integrate colonies into metropolitan trading networks, often to protect populations of settlers. Government policy-makers have paid too much attention to urban issues at the expense of rural economies, have focused too much on armaments and too little on investment, too much on centralization and too little on decentralization and popular participation in government activities. There are no clear policies or government machinery for disaster management or for creating public awareness of what needs to be done in case of disaster.

The lack of national mechanisms for disaster prevention and mitigation increases East Africa’s susceptibility to disaster. It is difficult to analyze the economic effects of disasters on the subregion because there is so little data on the nature, extent, and effect of disasters and emergencies, especially in the past. Although drought and desertification take the heaviest economic toll, about 90 percent of human deaths and property damage from disasters are attributed to water and wind. There is a close relationship between disasters, development, and environmental degradation and the resulting economic retardation and poverty. Official and public complacency and ignorance about disasters increases the region’s vulnerability to them.

Disasters, development, and the environment

Desertification worldwide is spreading at the alarming rate of 6 million hectares a year, and erosion is damaging Africa’s soil 26 times faster than it was 30 years ago. The Sahara Desert is said to be advancing southward at an alarming rate - an estimated 125 miles a year. There is a real danger that Africa may become permanently plagued by drought and desertification. The spread of the Sahara over an area 40 times the size of Switzerland has involved the destruction of at least 300,000 hectares of arable Sahelian land and forests. The reforestation rate in Africa is only 1:30, which means that 1.3 million hectares of dense forest and 2.3 million hectares of open forest are destroyed annually in Africa, and only 93,000 hectares a year are replanted. The grim realities of hunger, malnutrition, starvation, and death hit small farmers, the rural landless, the urban unemployed, and other marginal groups the hardest.

Bad weather accelerates the loss of topsoil, nutrients, and humus and the dryness that results from water running off a compacted ground surface. The sectors most damaged by drought are agriculture, forestry, fisheries, livestock, meteorology and hydrology, food and nutrition (different food crops), industry, resources, transport, education, and health. Deforestation contributes to soil erosion and flood damage in East Africa. Floods have caused heavy casualties and economic losses in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Sudan. Deforestation and soil erosion are the subregion’s most pressing environmental problems, and subsistence agriculture and heavy use of fuelwood are largely to blame. In drier areas, deforestation leads to desertification, which, once started, is irreversibly catastrophic. The tragedy of the Sahel illustrates the grave environmental and economic consequences of desertification and drought. Reduced agricultural production causes food crises that ruin human health, divert foreign exchange earnings from development to food imports, and create a dependence on food donations that are often used as political weapons. Prolonged food shortages accentuate social inequities, lower morale, and cause political and social instability. The grave effects of disasters and environmental degradation are felt most in the following sectors of the East African economy:

· Agriculture, East Africa’s main economic sector, foreign exchange earner, and source of employment.

· Tourism, a leading foreign exchange earner for Kenya and some other East African countries (for which conservation of nature and wildlife is essential).

· Industry, which is developing and needs more investment.

· Water supplies and management (needed for irrigation, sanitation, and nutrition).

· The environment, land use, forestry, and fisheries development.

· Livestock.

· Infrastructure (transport and communications, storage facilities, logistics, warehousing, and distribution).

· Energy, especially alternative renewable energies.

Changing the priorities of policymakers

To be effective, policies designed to deal with disasters in East Africa must also address problems of development and the environment, as the three are intertwined. Food and agricultural policies are most important, not just to East Africa but to the whole continent. For 30 years, agricultural production has deteriorated as urbanization and the population have grown, so per capita food consumption has declined. Post-harvest losses have also increased, as has Africa’s dependence on food imports. The resulting drain on foreign exchange earnings has retarded development in all African economies. Africa has a food problem largely because agriculture is not given the priority it deserves by policymakers. Enough resources should be allocated to promote agricultural and food productivity, which would improve welfare, especially in rural areas where most Africans live. Policies must:

· Give incentives to rural development and rural small-scale farmers and cooperatives.
· Involve rural women and youth in agricultural development.
· Improve the living conditions and real incomes of farmers and ordinary people.
· Encourage self-sufficiency in livestock and fish production.
· Reduce food waste.
· Diversify agricultural development.
· Strengthen food security.

Food security and early warning systems go together. To increase food production it is essential to develop improved seeds and aim at incentive producer prices. As part of early warning systems, it is essential to help national governments monitor crop conditions and food supplies and be alert to adverse trends.

To control drought and desertification, policies should protect vegetation, trees, and shrubs to prevent erosion, provide water catchment, maintain biological diversity, and produce fuelwood and fodder. About 95 percent of wood consumed in Africa is for fuelwood - Africa’s main energy source. To sustain this energy source, it is essential to launch reforestation programs, improve stoves, teach people more efficient ways to produce charcoal, conserve and rehabilitate rangelands, reduce and control overgrazing, make livestock production more efficient, and provide animal health centers, public information and education programs, and training facilities for farmers and pastoralists.

Water resources should be developed and better managed. These resources should be regulated, improved, and distributed evenly. The East African nations should provide research and training, should organize an integrated approach to lake and river basin development, should promote irrigation schemes, and design water points, boreholes, wells, and small reservoirs that resist pollution by barring inappropriate animal and human access.

Improving interregional cooperation will require improving transport and road access to drought-stricken areas so strategic food reserves and aid can be mobilized in emergencies; opening up land-locked areas by linking them to harbors; and improving telecommunication and power transmission between states.

There should be research and training to improve land use, soil conservation, and crop yields. Institutes of applied agricultural, livestock, and forest research should give priority to containing ecological (environmental) degradation, developing energy resources (especially new and renewable energies), developing environmental manpower, and improving communications between researchers, planners, and implementers.

Policymakers must address the problems of refugees and displaced persons (of which there are at least 2 million in East Africa alone), population growth, family planning, and land tenure. But most of all they must promote:

· Sustainable agricultural production that does not deplete the natural environment.

· Protection of crops and strategic food reserves, especially through pest control and improved storage and processing (drying and preserving) facilities to minimize post-harvest food losses.

· Intensified rural production to conserve natural resources and attain food self-sufficiency.

· Redevelopment of exhausted farmland, especially the rehabilitation of run-down irrigation systems.

· Improvement of village water management, including small-scale irrigation and water harvesting.

· Pastoral development.

· Disaster insurance, especially for tourism and wildlife.

· Afforestation.

· Development of drought-resistant livestock, trees, and crops.

· Increased productivity on arid and semiarid land.

· The formulation and implementation of national plans, programs, and projects for rehabilitation, recovery, and long-term development.

Emergency measures to relieve disaster victims should be short-term (last only three months), and rehabilitation and recovery programs medium-term (only three to 18 months). Their end should mark the beginning of the long-term development period (18 months and beyond) during which the focus is (East) Africa’s environmentally balanced socioeconomic development. All disaster-related projects should be either national or subregional. Subregional development policies endorsed by the national governments of cooperating states should be implemented as national projects coordinated to attain common strategic objectives. Subregional projects should harmonize national efforts toward the common objectives of subregional policies and national schemes.

Many policies are wrong-headed and should be changed. Food aid, for example, should become a tool for development. Food aid must be accepted in emergencies but policy should be to promote development, not to depend on relief or emergency food aid. Development strategies are wrong that stress the production of cash crops for export at the expense of food production for domestic consumption. Because of inappropriate pricing policies for crops, it has been difficult to supply enough food to urban populations and to create adequate food reserves. Other government policies produce inequalities in income distribution; neglect rural areas in overcentralized development efforts; neglect environmental concerns and ignore disaster mitigation in planning national development; fail to promote growth with equity (public investment that eliminates growth distortions and supports the poor); and fail to promote crop diversification, to reduce the economic losses from disaster.

Effective disaster management in East Africa should aim to:

· Provide for financing disaster preparedness, prevention, and mitigation.
· Strengthen national strategies and mechanisms for disaster management.
· Involve local people in national development and disaster management activities.
· Provide public information and education programs for the public, schools, and workplaces.
· Develop a coordinated approach to resolving East Africa’s environmental, development, and disaster problems.

Ill-conceived policies and programs aggravate rather than mitigate disasters. It is also important to coordinate action and support from the international community.

Action plans

Any action plan for dealing with disasters should:

· Look to the year 2000 and beyond.

· Develop strategies (measures) for all levels, from local to global.

· Establish a network of national disaster relief coordinators.

· Provide for community and regional training.

· Provide a regional plan for a network of regional training and information systems that cover medical surveillance, water stocking, drought surveillance, the provision of adequate storage facilities and grain stocks, and the like.

· Establish within the regional network a joint stocking facility, joint training facilities, joint transport of goods and services, joint health services, a regional program of feeder roads (currently vulnerable), and such emergency services as a joint flying doctor service.

· Jointly solicit international and bilateral technical, financial, and other support.

· Reactivate IGADD, which is too weak as it is. The IGADD ambassadors in Rome and elsewhere should be mobilized and asked to formulate practical proposals on ways to combat disasters. Research should be done on improving rural infrastructure, including road transport; an early warning system for food crops, locusts, climate, and natural hazards; environmental hazards; and public information and education programs.

How donors can help

The primary responsibility for development and for dealing with disasters and environmental hazards rests with the East African governments themselves. But these nations’ needs are too enormous to be satisfied without external financial and technical assistance. Financing institutions such as the World Bank could provide technical and financial assistance for long-term development projects, human resources development, and insurance coverage for disasters. FAO, IFAD, the OPEC Fund, UNIDO, WFP, WHO, and other agencies could provide assistance to help poor farmers; develop infrastructure; increase agricultural productivity; carry out research and development to strengthen disaster management capabilities; tackle disaster insurance problems; develop industrialization, support the recovery and rehabilitation of water resources, renewable energy resources, and food production, processing, and storage facilities; support relief supplies and food aid for development projects; develop information and early warning systems for crops and food security; and facilitate access to remote sensing of meteorological conditions.

HABITAT, UNDP, UNDRO, UNEP, UNHCR, UNICEF, and WHO can help with the preparation of national development plans and disaster preparedness activities; training, research, and other disaster management activities; technical assistance for developing national emergency policies and promoting public awareness for disasters and emergencies. Other antidisaster institutions such as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction could help provide disaster management skills for East Africa. Workshops and seminars on disaster problems should be encouraged, and promoted on a larger, more systematic, scale.

Annex 1

Table 1 East Africa’s disaster-proneness and economic vulnerability


(square miles)



Population density per square kilometer

Date of independence

Year of UN membership

Economy/main agricultural commodities

Per capita GNP
(US$) *

Type of disaster

Cost of disaster as percentage of GNP



Tropical volcanic soils, irregular rains





Subsistence agriculture/coffee, beans, groundnuts, sweet potatoes


Drought, famine, refugees, civil strife, displaced persons, floods, pests, epidemics




Arid volcanic rocks, torrid, high tropical monsoons





Trade services/livestock, vegetables, sheep, goats, asses, cattle, camels, fishing


Drought, pests, epidemics, civil strife, floods, refugees




Tropical plateau, semidesert



Ancient times


Agriculture/tobacco, barley, maize, potatoes, beans, sugarcane, groundnuts, coffee, cotton, livestock products


Drought, desertification, famine, pests, civil strife, epidemics, earthquakes, floods, refugees, displaced persons




Equatorial tropical forests





Fruits, sugarcane, cotton, cotton seeds, forestry, sisal, maize, millet, sorghum, cashew nuts, coffee, pineapples, tea, coconuts, pyrethrum, tobacco


Drought, desertification, refugees, floods, pests, earthquakes, epidemics




Tropical forests, dry and hot





Cassava, cotton seed, cashew nuts, groundnuts, maize, fruits, livestock products


Floods, civil strife, cyclones, epidemics, famine




Tropical, wet and dry, marshy, volcanos





Agriculture/cassava, beans, tea, coffee, peas, livestock, maize, sorghum


Drought, civil strife, famine




Savannah plains, semideserts





Pastoral/agriculture (irrigated and plantations), maize


Drought, desertification, pests, epidemics, oil spills, refugees, displaced persons, civil strife




Flat tropical plains, semideserts





Agriculture/sugarcane, forests, cotton seed, groundnuts, millet, sesame seeds


Desertification, famine, floods, epidemics, pests




Tropical rainforests, woodlands





Agriculture/rice, sisal, sesame, cotton seed, maize, millet


Desertification, famine, drought, epidemics, floods




Equatorial tropical forests, plateau





Agriculture/coffee, maize, bananas, beans, groundnuts, millet, sweet potatoes


Epidemics, drought, floods, famine, civil strife, refugees, displaced persons, desertification


*Nine nations are less-developed countries; Kenya is low-income.