Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Crisis in the Horn of Africa (1) - Emergency Relief

This post is part one of a two-part series examining how we should respond to the crisis in East Africa, and what role geologists have to play. This post looks at the current emergency humanitarian situation, and the types of rapid relief required. The next post will look in more detail at what geologists can do to prevent this type of crisis happening again. 

(1) The Emergency Situation

Last week I reported on the dire situation in the Horn of Africa, as a result of poor rainy seasons and thus severe drought. Since the UNOCHA released their helpful graphic highlighting the scale of this problem, the situation has been in the UK media most days as almost 3.2 million people need emergency aid. A number of international NGOs have begun appeals to raise the necessary funds to support the region, and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) has contributed around £38million towards feeding people in the region. 

(2) Relief Requirements

In addition to providing food there is an urgent need for clean, fresh water. Oxfam were on the news a short while ago, showing some of the equipment they were preparing to take over to the region to drill for groundwater and ease some of the stress. Lack of clean water means severe dehydration for many adults and children, the spread of disease and poor food production. The lack of water has also killed livestock which are a major asset of many people. When required these livestock are sold to raise funds to purchase food - however the lack of water has resulted in cattle being killed through dehydration. As cattle get weaker they are worth less, whereas cereal prices are rising - meaning it is increasingly difficult to purchase food. 

Each day thousands of people are arriving at the world's largest refugee camp - a camp built for 90,000 is currently holding 360,000 people. This puts a huge strain on the facilities available, with an urgent need for sanitation services and clean water. Without adequate sanitation facilities being built disease could spread rapidly through the camp, causing an even worse crisis. 

You can get a summary of the situation by watching this Channel 4 News Report:

(3) Role of Groundwater 

Groundwater is less affected by unusually low rainfall and therefore drought, as it takes time for water to enter an aquifer - thus average rainfall is more important. Groundwater can, therefore, be a lifeline to communities affected by droughts of the severity we are seeing in East Africa. Oxfam have stated that they are planning to drill boreholes to help communities find more sustainable sources of water. It is to be hoped that the drilling for groundwater in this region can be undertaken rapidly and successfully, particularly in locations where people are flocking - such as the refugee camps, and key facilities such as schools and hospitals.

Drilling for groundwater is not an easy task, and success is not guaranteed. Geologists will use resources such as geological maps, hydrogeological maps and field observations to determine what groundwater availability there could be in specific areas. Geophysical measurements will then be used to select suitable drilling locations and drilling depths. Holes are then drilled and water is hopefully encountered. In some cases water is not encountered and the hole must be abandoned. In other cases a test (known as a pumping test) to determine how much water there is available and how quickly it enters the well. This test can show that the water is sufficient or insufficient for abstraction. Finally, tests must be done to test the quality of the water and ensure that it is not contaminated.  

Groundwater mapping undertaken by the British Geological Survey in Ethiopia (see below) shows groundwater availability during a drought. Comparing this map with the map of areas affected suggest that accessing groundwater in the south-east of the country could be difficult, whereas groundwater in the central-south is more likely to be available, although could also be problematic. I'm not aware if similar maps exist for Somalia and Kenya. 

(4) Further Information

Crisis appeals have been launched by a number of charities:

DFID have also released a press release: