Shifting Focus on Africa's Drought

11/06/2009 02:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Headlines rarely do a story justice - especially when it comes to the words "Drought in Africa".

They don't capture the feel of the crumbled, arid soil that cannot nourish even a subsistence crop. They don't explain how parched husks of corn can be peeled back to reveal the plant never produced any kernels.

Headlines cannot begin to explain the impact of the drought on the daily lives of individuals living in the region.

But Faith, a mother of four, can.

Even though news is starting to report that drought is becoming more frequent, this only tells of something Faith has been witnessing for years.

Faith's local water source has dried up. Because of that, she was forced her to pull her 13-year-old daughter from school to help her make the four-hour, daily hike across the barren landscape to a new one.

This wasn't an easy choice. She had already left an abusive husband in hopes of making a better life for their kids. In seeing her rub her aching knees while resting on a 20-liter jerry can, it's clear the drought is challenging those plans.

That's something a headline really can't explain.

In the 25 years since images of famine in Ethiopia elicited a massive humanitarian response, droughts have become increasingly frequent. They dry subsistence crop. What little rain does fall usually washes away the precious seed. Further, it dries up water-sources for families like Faith's, forcing them to go to extreme lengths to find new ones.

This isn't a one-season phenomenon. Climate experts even predict that by the 50th anniversary of the 1984 famine, drought will be the norm coming three out of every four years.

While headlines focus largely on relief aid, measures to prevent some of the worst effects of drought would be both more efficient and better for Faith's family.

Faith's limited water supply means her two-year-old must be bathed in a nearby dam. The water is used by the region's dehydrated cattle to drink. But, the murky, orange colour is telling of the potentially deadly water-borne illness her son is exposed to.

For her middle children, boys aged seven and four, they are missing out on meals. This lack of nutrition can be devastating during these integral years of growth. Then there is Faith and her elder daughter whose pre-dawn trek puts them in constant danger.

According to Oxfam, just 0.14 per cent of overseas assistance is allocated to disaster risk management, an area of aid that identifies threats together with communities and works to mitigate them. This includes investment in infrastructure that would move food relief around a country rather than importing it and water conservation projects that would help sustain crops.

Unfortunately, the tendency is to give after a crisis rather than taking steps to prevent it from happening.

Disaster relief is only a temporary solution and not something that can efficiently be given season after season. With Oxfam estimating it costs approximately US $2 to ship $1 worth of food aid, we have to question if there is a better way. Seeing as most subsistence farmers rely on rain rather than irrigation to feed their crops, it's inevitable that the next drought will have the same consequences.

Preventative measures would mean more options for Faith and her family. They would help her prepare for the coming years of drought so that her family does not need this costly kind of aid.

Further, it would empower her to create the better life she dreams of.

But, to do that, we must start recognizing what's already evident to her - that this disaster is now becoming the standard. Only in treating it that way can we work at mitigation.