As Famine Rises, So Do Political Hurdles During East Africa's worst drought in 60 years, tens of thousands have already died and millions urgently need food. The United Nations is warning that the crisis will worsen if aid is not increased. Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai says government systems have severely lagged in helping locals and solving environmental problems. She tells host Michel Martin what else should be done to bring relief to the region.

As Famine Rises, So Do Political Hurdles

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up there is a Congress convening in Washington this week but it's not the one that's been talking about the debt. This Congress is exploring the stories of former refugees. Supermodel Alek Wek will talk to us about her experience as a refugee from Sudan. That conversation in just a few minutes. But first, even as we speak about Alek Wek's experience as a former refugee, people are on the move now, especially in East Africa where a devastating drought has left more than 12 million people in urgent need of food according to the United Nations.

Aid is just beginning to come in but officials say it is not nearly enough to meet the need. Tens of thousands of people have already died in the drought and the UN has said the crisis is likely to grow in size and severity in the coming months. We wanted to talk more about the roots of this latest crisis so, we've called upon Wangari Maathai. She is the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an environmentalist and human rights leader.

She's also the founder of the green belt movement which has planted more than 45 million trees in Kenya and author of four books including "The Challenge for Africa" and "Replenishing the Earth." She's also former Kenyan parliamentarian and she was kind enough to join us on the line from her office in Nairobi, Kenya. Welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us.

WANGARI MAATHAI: Thank you, indeed.

MARTIN: One of the first thoughts that I had here is that we used to hear it quite a lot about drought and famine in Africa and it seems that in recent years we are not hearing so much about this. So, is the current circumstance unusual or is it in fact, one that has become common? We just have not been talking about it?

MAATHAI: To me there are two tragedies unfolding at the same time. One tragedy is the one that we have been addressing for decades and that is environmental degradation and environmental degradation in this region has been very conspicuous and very obvious but unfortunately, governments in this region have not taken environmental degradation seriously and in terms of taking action and taking initiative both short term and long term to make a community that live especially in very vulnerable areas less vulnerable. For example, we now see people dying, animals dying, the landscapes completely devastated.

This did not happen overnight. We are seeing a situation where rains haven't come for four years, so governments knew that the rains have not come this year, they didn't come the following year. Surely, we expected people to be hit but so, the second tragedy is the fact that we have governments systems that have failed the people in this region, where they're not able to cater for them, take care of them, guide them so, that they can help them mitigate and adapt to the changes that are taking place all the time. Not just because of the climate change, which is a new phenomenon but because of the gradual environmental degradation that is influenced by the Sahara especially to the north.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to talk more about this and so, and I also want to mention that we've talked a lot about the role that civil unrest is playing in some of the suffering that many people are experiencing, but what I'm hearing you say is that even apart from that, even apart for example from the role that the group al-Shabaab is playing in Somalia and so forth, there would already be--there is an underlying problem that needs to be addressed?

MAATHAI: Absolutely, and this can only be done by governments first and foremost (unintelligible) like us are trying but you can only do so much. It is really a government issue and I know that the government can be assisted by international community but quite often we wait until the international community is (unintelligible) by the international press. When cameras go to the people and the people are dying, when those pictures hit the New York Times and Washington Post that's when we start in (unintelligible) the guardians. That's when we started to see the government moving.

To me that's the biggest tragedy of all, and of course, it doesn't look good to be beating the government at the time when it is running around trying to rescue what we can rescue. But I think we can not explain the tragedy without calling on the governments to play their parts long before the tragedies take place to play their part.

MARTIN: What are some of the steps that local governments should have been taking and could have been taking to mitigate this crisis before now?

MAATHAI: What we have been working on in East Africa, persuading the Kenya government for example to protect the forests and to protect especially the forested mountains from where the rivers flow. One of the major rivers that flows into the northeastern part of the country where tragedy has hit is called (unintelligible). (unintelligible) starts in the Aberdare Forest. As you and I speak, (unintelligible) has completely dried up to dead rock. Why? Because people have been allowed to move into the forest, to (unintelligible) in the forest, to cut wood in the forest, to establish plantations in the forest.

When you do that you reduce the capacity of the forest to harvest rainwater, or even for the rainwater to come regularly. And as a result the flow of rivers either reduces or it as in this case completely stopped. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why the government cannot say today no more grazing in the forest, no more settlements, no more cultivation in the forest so, that the rivers can flow and reach the people who are being hit by disaster.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking to Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmentalist, Wangari Maathai. We're talking about the drought and refugee crisis in the Horn of Africa and Ms. Maathai, is it that in this country and in some other Western countries there is a dispute about the validity of climate change. It's more of a political dispute than a scientific dispute. The scientific community is very much in agreement generally in agreement about this.

But there's a political dispute about it. Some people just say they just don't believe it. Is that the case where you are? Is that the case in East Africa? Is it that the political leadership does not believe that climate change is real or is it that there are other factors that cause them not to take the steps that you say are required?

MAATHAI: Yeah, well, long before we discussed the climate changes issues seriously environmental degradation was going on. We started this complaint 30 years ago and we started because we started seeing rivers drying up. We started seeing we had degradation of forests. We started seeing the volume of waters in the rivers coming from the mountains going down, so even without the climate change debate, governments in this region do not do it - need to be convinced that they have to protect the mountains.

It is the local politics, the local politics interferes because sometimes the leaders want their tribesmen to go into the forest and benefit. As a result they will allow the forest to be destroyed because it is their people who are benefiting. And this local politics to me is what is the biggest problem in trying to solve some of these environmental problems.

MARTIN: But the same question applies to the issue you raised about the environmental degradation issue. Is it that the authorities there, that the political leaders there just don't believe that the environmental degradation is that big of a deal? Is it they just don't believe the argument or is it that they just feel that advantaging their constituents or whoever, or their allies is more important?

MAATHAI: Well, you know, so many times the problem is actions. If you talk to them they will tell you they believe it. If you lead the (unintelligible) they'll tell you they believe it. The initiative they propose indicate they believe it. Nobody in the government will tell you that it is right to destroy forests, or it is right to interfere with the flow of water in rivers. But to take action and make sure that the right thing is being done.

The other day I observed government lorries literally rushing to the north to take water to the people of (unintelligible). They are taking water in water tanks. Why can't we do something so that there was new river flows instead of us taking water to the people in water tanks? It's action.

And this is serious because whether it is at the international level or whether it is at the local level, action is what is missing. Until there is a tragedy, and then everybody's in trouble.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, the scope of the disaster in East Africa, in the Horn of Africa, has started to become known in the U.S. and certainly in other parts of the world. And right now the focus is on getting immediate, you know, relief to people, immediate humanitarian aid. What else should be our focus here, if you don't mind my asking you that?

MAATHAI: Well, I want to thank everybody, of course, including local people are making every effort to save (unintelligible). And we find people from all over the world for the support that is needed, definitely with the people needed to be rescued as quickly as possible. That is the priority right now. But I would also wish that the international community which (unintelligible) the campaign to support will have a follow-up campaign to make sure that these things are prevented from coming.

Because they are predictable and they are foreseeable. But maybe the United Nations needs to have a mechanism that even wakes up local government, the national government and reminds them that you are going to have a problem in this area. But in the final analysis I can tell you that the responsibility of serving people (unintelligible) with a government, with a national government, they can be supported international and thank everybody for their support.

But I think it is extremely important for national governments to be accountable to their people and to do what they can for their people and save them from such tragedies as we have seen now here in East Africa.

MARTIN: Wangari Maathai won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in Kenya and founding the Greenbelt Movement, and also her work in human rights and social justice. She joined us on the line from her office in Nairobi, Kenya. Wangari Maathai, thank you so much for joining us.

MAATHAI: Thank you very much for having me.

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