For as long as she can remember, Vaha Saajinuru, a wiry middle-aged woman with an expressive face, spent much of each day in exhausting drudgery, fetching water. Living on the parched, drought-stricken south coast of Madagascar, she had to make the journey four or five times a day: out of her village, down a cactus-lined dirt road, and across thorny grassland to a muddy water pit more than a mile from her home.
Then she’d walk back again, slowly, so that the water did not spill, a plastic bucket balanced on her head, a jerrycan in one hand and a granddaughter clinging to the other. Sometimes, when things were really bad, she and her family would drink what they call “chocolate water” – whatever they could scoop from potholes in the rust red clay roadway.
“We knew it wasn’t good for our health but we had no choice,” says Ms. Saajinuru.
Now she and her neighbors in Sihanamaro do have a choice as they gird themselves, like millions of others in Africa’s arid zones, to cope better with drought and the threat of famine. With help from UNICEF, they have installed seven community faucets around the village, each set in a cement trough and protected by a picket fence, to provide clean water pumped from a nearby well. “This has changed our lives,” Saajinuru says.
Madagascar’s brush with widespread starvation last year drew little attention from the rest of the world. But over the past 50 years other African countries have come to epitomize the dangers of drought and the tragedy of famine. Today, battered by global warming and civil wars, wide swaths of the continent again face an unprecedented crisis: In Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and across the Red Sea in Yemen, 20 million people face starvation, “barely surviving in the space between malnutrition and death,” in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
Yet the threat many of these people face today may be less grave than it would have been for their parents and grandparents. Over the past two decades, African nations have learned valuable lessons about how to predict, if not prevent, droughts, and how to ward off famine by strengthening the defenses of the most vulnerable.
From Madagascar to Ethiopia to Somalia and beyond, governments, international aid agencies, and the villagers they help are building up “community resilience.” That’s the new buzzword in humanitarian circles: It is seen as key to ensuring that farmers and herders have something to hold onto when…