Lost in the news cycles: Severe drought causes hunger emergency

Last year during a trip to Kenya with Catholic Relief Services our delegation visited the Amboseli National Park in Southern Kenya for two days. The park is on the migration route for millions of wildebeests and zebras as they cross through the grasslands of Kenya on their way to the Serengeti in Tanzania. As you can see in the photo accompanying this article, the zebra are hurrying through the drought-stricken preserve hoping to find green grass soon. The extreme drought in this region has gotten worse -- not better -- since last year.

All of us here in Massachusetts suffered through a severe drought last year also. You might have noticed that the apples were smaller and there were no local peaches for sale in the farmer's markets. The honey flow in local apiaries was going strong until early August when the lack of rain forced the bees to consume the honey they had produced earlier in the year to survive. Despite the severe drought that brought inconveniences and challenges, we all survived. We found apples and peaches in our supermarkets that came from other parts of the country or from other countries. The bees hunkered down and are now busy collecting nectar as if nothing ever happened.

There were water restrictions and prohibitions on filling swimming pools, washing cars and washing buildings and guidance to water with a hand-held hose after 5 PM or before 9 AM to avoid evaporation but now with a wet spring and adequate rainfall, most of those restrictions have been lifted.

No wells went dry and most everyone had enough to eat. Our experience with severe drought was not a big deal and perhaps that makes the stories out of Africa hard to understand. What are we to think went we read about the life-threatening severe drought in Eastern Africa that threatens widespread starvation and creates large migrations of people from the worst areas of the drought? Why is that happening? Why can't the local authorities just restrict water use and find food at a supermarket?

Let's stop and look at the situation a little more closely. First, the people of Eastern Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia are poor, very poor. Daily average per capita income for these people ranges from $6 to $1 and we can compare that to a conservative number of $128 for U.S. residents. Could you live on $1 a day?

The people who are suffering have very little in good times when there is plenty of rain. They might have houses with one window and a door, no electricity (nothing with an off/on switch), and no furniture. The people sleep on the floor with their livestock -- if they are lucky enough to have livestock. They depend on shallow wells that are often muddy and contaminated. When the shallow well dries up villagers are forced to walk a long distance -- three to 10 kilometers -- to fill a five-gallon water bottle and carry it back to their homes -- several times a day. A few villages have benefitted from organizations such as CRS raising funds and community cooperation to drill boreholes and provide well pumps powered by solar panels to provide clean water for the entire village. Many more go without.

This drought has brought the risk of famine for millions of people, and Catholic Relief Services is leading the call for help. We all know CRS because we regularly participate in RICE BOWL to raise money every Lent to help these same people and others to improve their farming techniques, grow crops with better yields and market value and drill wells and boreholes to bring clean and abundant water to entire villages. CRS works in over 100 countries to teach the poor and provide basic tools, seeds, and breeding stock to move beyond subsistence farming to foster the opportunity to save some money and expand their ability to grow and market their farm products.

So why is Catholic Relief Services calling for more help now to save lives in these countries? The reason is that the severe drought in the region has devastated the area -- and that has changed everything. CRS states that there are 32 million people in these countries who do not know where they will find their next meal. The need is greater than at any time since the dislocation of tens of millions of people during World War II. CRS was founded by the U.S. bishops to help with this part of the catastrophe of the war.

In Africa, the local populations who rely on the crops they grow in their yards and on their farm animals -- goats and cows and pigs and poultry -- have seen the shallow wells in their villages dry up and their limited food stores run out. The drought has lasted for more than a year.

These families have nothing left to do except move on, carrying everything they own on their backs and leading their children and animals to find food. The migrations are taking place with people moving to find grass for their livestock and camps that might have food and shelter for their families. These people remember the famines that hit the region in 2011 that left over 250,000 people dead. For many, the aid was too little and too late. Now they are walking hundreds of miles looking for help -- any help.

Sean Callahan, a West Roxbury native and the current President of Catholic Relief Services is calling for help. He just returned from tent settlements in South Sudan that have sprung up in places where CRS and other organizations provide water, food and shelter.

While need is great, Sean's call for help is hard to hear in our current caustic news media frenzy that often leaves out news from more remote parts of the world. And it is hard for us to understand the real severe impact of the drought and the famine it is causing in East Africa when our recent experience here is Massachusetts wasn't so bad.

The numbers we are talking about are huge. Over 20 million people are in danger of dying. The effects of malnutrition on children for any period of time can last a lifetime. The cognitive development in children is fragile.

CRS is uniquely qualified to help these people for many reasons. First, CRS already has a presence in these countries. Second, CRS has a strategy to coordinate with other aid organizations in ways that complement each other's skills and utilize on-the-ground personnel to provide the most efficient effective solutions to specific needs. CRS can provide the missing pieces to a project that can be the difference between success and failure. Finally, CRS has earned a four-star rating with Charity Navigator. CRS spends 93 cents out of every dollar donated.

An example of partnership occurs in Kenya, which is home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world. CRS is one of many organizations that provide all the services needed to house, feed and care for over 750,000 people. CRS provides sanitation services for one sector of the camp. In other areas of the country CRS partners with many different organizations and local and national government organizations to provide the services that are needed to help villages recover from the impact of HIV/Aids on the area or to complete a new well for the community that never was built.

What can we do? First, let us pray for these people on the other side of the globe. They are our brothers and sisters. Let us thank God for the gifts he has given to us.

To learn more about the work of CRS or help support their work to alleviate the African hunger crisis, visit CRS.org.

Deacon is Donohue local Catholic Relief Services Ambassador at Holy Name Parish, West Roxbury.