At a traditional homestead in Chiede commune, in southern Angola’s drought-stricken Cunene Province, four tired, dusty children rest in the shade of a thatched hut. They have just returned from a journey to fetch water that has taken them most of the morning; the task will have to be repeated in the afternoon if the family of 20 is to have a few litres of muddy brown water to cook, drink and wash with.
The well just outside the homestead dried up last October, and family members have been making the three-and-a-half-hour roundtrip to a newly dug well twice a day ever since.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve known the ‘seca’ [drought] to be this bad,” said the children’s grandmother, Victoria Nditondino, 67.
The family was lucky to harvest about 50kg of millet from the land surrounding their homestead. About three-quarters of households in the area harvested nothing, according to Albertina Hilda Namafo, a volunteer with Development Aid from People to People (DAPP), an NGO that uses community health workers to educate the local population about health and sanitation practices.
“Generally, people have no food, but those who do share with others. They are making drinks from wild fruits and roots, and some are selling charcoal,” Namafo told IRIN.
Watching her granddaughter pound millet into flour to prepare the family’s one meal of the day, Nditondino says their millet supply will be finished by the end of the month. “I don’t know what we’ll do when it runs out.”
The family’s only other assets are seven cattle, which must also make the daily trek to reach drinking water, accompanied by Nditondino’s husband. The rest of the family’s herd has been sent “far away” with a family member in the hope of saving them from starvation, but two have died already.
While drought is a recurring phenomenon in Cunene Province, according to Pio Hipunyati, the bishop of Ondjiva Diocese, “this year is critical - worse than any other I’ve seen because there’s no water or pasture. It’s affecting people and animals, and it’s affecting the whole province.”
In fact, the drought is affecting the entire region. Although Cunene has been particularly hard hit, an estimated 1.5 million people in five provinces in southern Angola - Cunene, Namibe, Cuando Cubango, Huila and Benguela - are in need of assistance, as are people in many parts of neighbouring Namibia.
But while Namibia’s government declared the drought there an emergency in May and is appealing for international donors to help meet the cost of distributing aid, the Angolan government has downplayed the crisis and insisted that it has the capacity to respond adequately.
No plan for appeal
Teresa Rocha is a consultant with Angola’s Civil Protection Unit and part of an inter-ministerial commission set up by the government to address the drought. She told IRIN that the commission’s response plan has five components: food, water, health, assistance for farmers and environmental protection. But when asked how much money the government had allocated for implementing the plan, she seemed unsure and checked with a colleague, who said the figure was one billion kwanza (US$10.3 million).
“There is no plan to appeal for international assistance and no need to declare a state of emergency,” Rocha added.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has launched its own appeal for $14.4 million to meet the needs of women and children affected by the drought, over $10 million of which remained unfunded by mid-July. The Catholic charity Caritas is also running a national campaign to raise funds and donations of non-perishable food and drinking water.
Although Rocha said distribution of food and water was underway, with plans to target 600,000 people, Hipunyati said help from the government had been “very sparse”. Chiede is only about 50km from the provincial capital, Ondjiva, and close to a road, but no assistance has so far reached the community besides the government water truck, which comes every two weeks and is supposed to supply the entire municipality.
More remote villages cannot be reached by the water trucks, said Hipunyati, and there has been no government action to dig bore holes. Paulo Calunga, a civil protection spokesperson in Cunene, explained that drilling boreholes, which may have to be up to 300m deep to reach the sinking water table, required special equipment that his unit had yet to receive. He noted that the government had recently purchased tractors that would be able to take water from the Cunene River and deliver it to communities where road access was poor.
Cunene’s landscape is dotted with “chimpakas” - natural and man-made depressions that store rainwater. Some still contain a small amount of stagnant water that can only be used for livestock. Others have dried up completely, and local people are digging deep beneath them to find water that is then closely guarded.
“They wait overnight for the hole to fill up with water,” said Cristina Veronica Djemioulai, another DAPP volunteer. “Then they make a ‘lid’ from sticks and close the well with a chain and padlock.”
The water from such wells is “very, very dirty,” said Hipunyati, “not fit for human consumption”. It is nevertheless being consumed. Cases of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases have increased significantly, according to UNICEF, which reported that there had been over 1,500 cholera cases in Huila, Cunene and Benguela provinces by July, resulting in 62 casualties.
Malnutrition cases are also on the rise, with Cunene Province alone recording 35 deaths among children under five between January and June. In the previous two years, the province recorded fewer than 20 deaths per year relating to malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
“People used to be able to move to another area to find food in exchange for animals, but now there is no chance of doing that because all areas are affected. The only way people would have food is through relief assistance,” said Hipunyati.
Children are usually the ones sent to collect water from distant locations; as a result, school attendance is down. “Some are also too hungry to come to school,” said Marcelina Penaria, a teacher at Mutako Primary School in Chiede, whose grade three class has lost over a third of its pupils since the drought began.
“Normally, school begins at 8 and closes at 12:30, but because of the drought, we start at 9 and finish at 11:30 because the children are too tired to learn,” she told IRIN.
Calunga from Civil Protection pointed out that, although Cunene is prone to drought, the province experienced repeated flooding between 2008 and 2011. “Then, from the end of 2011, the rain stopped completely. Recovery from the floods hasn’t been possible because of the drought.”
While agricultural production suffered during the flood years, there had been no shortage of pasture for cattle, which are the main source of a livelihood for the majority of subsistence farmers in the province. Now, one of the only remaining areas of pasture in Oshimolo, about 200km from Ondijva, is being grazed by over one million cattle, brought there by owners from all over the province. “The pasture there will be finished in two to three months,” Calunga predicted.
“Hopefully, the rain will come in October, but we’re expecting the emergency to last until May - harvest time.”