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Drought traps African farmers in vicious circle

Written by: Staff
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KATHYAKA, Kenya, Feb 23 (Reuters) Village elder Thomas Mulinge sees the drought that ruined his people's crops and left them begging for food as a punishment from God for man's sins.

''There is nothing you can do but wait for death,'' the greying 60-year-old said, seeking shelter from the sweltering midday heat under a dusty tree. ''It is God's will.'' Fellow subsistence farmer Humphrey Musembi looks gloomily at his parched plot of land in Kathyaka, southeastern Kenya. The maize he planted last year quickly wilted under a merciless sun, turning his small green field into desolate red soil.

''It is all dead. I have nothing,'' Musembi, 33, said as his two young children squatted in the shade offered by the family's small mud hut, ignoring the flies. ''We are praying for rain.'' They are among millions of victims of the latest drought to hit Africa, less than a year after poor rains brought hunger to the west and south, adding to a seemingly endless procession of natural disasters devastating the world's poorest continent.

As in Niger and southern Africa in 2005, the United Nations is pleading for hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the threat of a major humanitarian catastrophe in eastern Africa.

But while some believe higher powers are behind the deadly droughts, agricultural experts and environmentalists say man himself is largely to blame because of years of neglect and mismanagement of land and other resources.

Destruction of forests, the AIDS pandemic, pervasive poverty, lack of rural investment and bad roads are all factors that make Africa especially vulnerable to such calamities.

''It is a vicious circle that has to be tackled long-term,'' said fundraising manager Emily Mworia of relief group AMREF, which helps feed more than 20 percent of the 900,000 people in Kibwezi district, including the villages that form Kathyaka.

Climate change may bring longer dry spells and unpredictable rains but societies should be able to cope better, experts say.

''There are all sorts of things you could do to make sure less rain does not mean more dead,'' said Peter Smerdon, spokesman for the U.N.'s World Food Programme.

THE RIGHT MONEY Smerdon and others stressed that this required more investment, for example in drilling water boreholes and changing behaviour, and that the funds needed were often lacking.

''In terms of attention, interest, money -- that goes to emergencies,'' said Nick Haan, a chief technical adviser for the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organisation. Development funds should not be disproportionately diverted to crises, he said.

Eric Patrick, a dry lands expert at the United Nations Development Programme, said governments and donors should put more emphasis on rural development as it provides livelihoods for more than half of the continent's population.

People in towns have, for political reasons, often been favoured at the expense of farmers and pastoralists, he said.

Patrick said pan-continental body NEPAD, promoting improved economic and political governance, now advocates an increase in rural investment to 10 percent of gross domestic product from between three and eight percent, but that even more was needed.

There were signs, he said, that drought strikes parts of Africa with greater frequency and greater severity than in the past, adding that higher rainfall variability was especially problematic as it made it difficult for farmers to plan.

But many other regions of the world -- including areas of the United States and Asia -- are more exposed to dry weather than Africa and had managed to mitigate the problem, he added.

''There is a sufficient level of knowledge and techniques to allow people to live and prosper in dry areas ... Many great civilisations were able to evolve in dry areas, using sophisticated water management systems.'' CHARCOAL BURNING For that to happen in Africa, experts say farmers need to change habits. For example, they could use more drought-resistant crops and stop chopping trees for charcoal.

Kioki Kithuki, an AMREF logistics officer in Kibwezi, said locals were being encouraged to plant more millet and sorghum instead of their preferred maize, which requires more water.

But many can't afford the seeds after several bad harvests, even if the rains were to arrive on time in March and April.

Environmentalists say African countries must also halt and reverse decades of deforestation to stop soil erosion.

Forests cover less than two percent of Kenya compared with over 30 percent when it won independence from Britain in 1963.

''There's a general culture in this country to cut all the trees. It makes me so angry because everyone is cutting and no one is planting,'' said Kenyan Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s.

''It is among the stupid things we do, then when there's drought we cry and wonder why,'' she told Reuters.

The scope of the problem becomes clear during a trip south from the capital Nairobi, with desperate farmers selling sacks of charcoal for use as cooking fuel by the side of the road.

Musembi says they know it is bad but must do it to survive.

''We fear it may cause drought as the land is left bare.'' He believes there is water in the ground beneath him but it would cost more than 2 million Kenyan shillings (,600) to drill for it, so his family must walk several kilometres on dirt roads to fetch water in jerry cans.

''A borehole would be the difference between nothing and a good life,'' he said. ''I don't believe the drought is a curse from God. It is man-made and can be solved by man.'' REUTERS CS SND1043

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