By Mwende Mwendwa and Belay Begashaw
Dryland regions make up roughly 43% of the earth’s surface. In Africa alone, it’s over 60%, but despite this, decision-makers have generally neglected development of these regions. One of the main reasons is that drylands are assumed to be wastelands, with little potential, and in need of constant supplies of food aid. Contrary to this erroneous belief, the drylands have proven it can sustain agriculture including tree-based livelihoods and animal production. In Africa, the drylands bring in important tourist revenue however the full potential of this isn’t achieved because of geographical and political constraints. These areas have poor infrastructure and are not adequately served by roads or telecommunications. Health and educational services are rudimentary or absent and they are cut off from markets for agricultural or veterinary inputs and to sell agricultural or livestock products.
Achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in pastoral communities is extremely challenging as the experience of the Millennium Village in Dertu, Kenya has revealed. Frequent droughts cause untold suffering — animals die and pastoral communities lose all of their assets as a result. To effectively turn the various challenges into opportunities the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) entered into a partnership with the MDG Centre (East and Southern Africa) to launch the Drylands Initiative, taking into account the needs of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in Eastern Africa.
The main objective of the Drylands Initiative is to bring sustainable development to pastoral and agro-pastoral communities, and to demonstrate that real and significant progress towards the achievement of the MDGs is possible. The initiative is different from other attempts at developing the drylands, by recognizing that solutions are not only technical but that there is critical need for good governance and strong community ownership for sustainable development in the drylands. Specific objectives are to bring a critical mass of human resources and develop capacity for sustainable drylands development. Further it is important to note that the initiative emphasizes an integrated approach to maximize synergies within various development sectors.
The MDG Centre- COMESA partnership is already demonstrated a growing strong community ownership around the Drylands Initiative. The communities that have been consulted have shown their capacities to take opportunities and be the agents of their own change. The initiative recognizes three important levels where it must operate: regional, national and local. There will be activities at the regional level that recognize that the drylands form a single economic space and systems will be strengthened to ensure that drought and animal disease early warning systems, markets and water resource planning operate across the region.
The participating countries are to be Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Southern Sudan, Somalia and Uganda. These countries of Eastern Africa all have significant drylands zones. While the highland parts of Kenya and Ethiopia are wetter and productive, each country has extensive drylands areas, amounting to as much as 80% of the country in Kenya. Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea are mostly arid or semi arid. In Uganda, the dry regions include Karamoja and the “cattle corridor” which stretches from the north-east to the south-west. Southern Sudan has a range of agro-ecologies, with the drier areas located in the south-east.
Droughts and competition for limited resources – mainly water and pasture culminate into conflict. Continuing to neglect the drylands will not only leave hundreds of thousands of people in abject poverty, but will also lead to escalating violence. It is clear that the need to address drylands is now and that the cost of continually neglecting the drylands is grave.