Towards the end of 2016, Kenya was facing a growing threat of drought. Across the Horn of Africa, failure of the 2016 short rains (October–December) in the aftermath of recurrent poor and erratic rainy seasons threatened to spark a massive humanitarian crisis. Rapidly depleting pastures and water sources meant livestock-dependent pastoralists inhabiting the country’s driest areas lands were at risk. As the drought worsened, livestock owners struggled to keep their animals fed and alive.
According to Alice Katiwe, a mother of four her “[cattle] were so starved to an extent that eventually they lost all of their strength”. Harrison, an owner of five cattle, was also struggling to keep his livestock and “at a certain point, I even had to pluck leaves from the bush, stack in a sack and carry them back for the cattle to eat as we had totally run out of grass”.
Mlongo Mwanyasi, recalled seeing the first signs of her animals weakening, “these animals couldn’t get up. There is this particular female cow, which had to be lifted. I would lift up and assist her to walk to the forest so that she could graze, but this was not possible. She was so weak that she was not rising at all. So I would go the forest to collect leaves and then bring back to where she lay here at home so that she could eat”. Eventually, selling the cattle was no longer a viable option as prices had fallen drastically from KES 8 300 (USD 80) to KES 3 000 (USD 30) for one cow. They started to search for ways to protect their remaining animals.
FAO acts early
Back in September 2016, FAO and Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority had set up an Early Warning Early Action (EWEA) system. The system was designed to use drought early warnings to trigger early action in a way to mitigate the later impact of the disaster on communities. In November, a range of indicators – rainfall data, vegetation indices and livestock conditions, among others – pointed to the onset of a major drought. Already by December, FAO had released USD 400 000 in funds from its newly set-up Early Action Fund under the Special Fund for Emergency and Rehabilitation Activities.
Livestock emergency feed rations were distributed to the worst hit counties. Harrison and Alice both received supplementary feed and multi-nutrient blocks for their cows. Harrison was able to keep all of his animals alive and healthy during the worst period of the crisis, while Alice was reached just in time to safeguard her remaining cattle.
The support provided by FAO meant the animals not only survived but even thrived as the peak of the crisis hit and fodder became ever scarcer. One of Mlongo’s key breeding cows even gave birth – a significantly rare occurrence during a drought – “because of eating the feed and getting sufficient energy from the food. I am very grateful because had it not been for this food, she may have died”. Alice, too, has a pregnant cow “meaning that if she continues feeding well until term, she shall stay healthy. I expect her to produce a lot of milk, because when a cow is healthy, she produces a lot of it”.
Livelihoods: people’s best defense against hunger and malnutrition
By acting early and safeguarding livestock, FAO enabled drought affected livestock-owners to protect their key breeding animals throughout the peak of the drought. This was a crucial form of emergency assistance. For pastoralists such as Alice, Harrison and Mlongo livestock is their lifeline. It is their main source of both food security and income, a critical source of nutrition for children, as well as an important savings asset used when needed, to afford medical care for a sick family member or to pay school fees.
Harrison saw the results of the feed almost immediately, “at the moment, my cows are producing nine litres per day. Their milk levels had started to go down due to the drought conditions to an extent that each cow would produce a single litre. Now there is significant improvement after the onset of the feeds”. Over 12 800 livestock-owning families were assisted, through support including not only supplementary feed, but also health treatments for their animals, animal destocking /slaughter at a fee towards the owners and the meat given to communities, and livestock market association activities to help stabilise livestock prices.
Acting early to prevent hazards from becoming food security crises
For Alice, Harrison and Mlongo early action played a critical role in saving their animals and livelihoods. Taking action before a crisis escalates into an emergency not only safeguards livelihoods, it is also a wise investment as acting early has a double benefit: it builds resilience while reducing both disaster losses and cost of emergency response.
A return on investment study carried out by FAO in Kenya in July 2017 revealed that providing animal feed for key breeding stock – at a cost of USD 92 per household – ensured their survival and increased milk production. As a result, there was a return of almost USD 3.5 on every USD 1 spent.
Crisis not over yet
Yet these households represent just a small portion of those still struggling to cope as a third consecutive poor rainy season. This has led to more than 2.6 million Kenyans facing severe food insecurity. The latest Predictive Livestock Early Warning System (PLEWS) data for Kenya shows that forage condition will deteriorate rapidly through the end of the year, with rising livestock mortality expected. With poor forecasts for the upcoming short rains in drought-hit areas, pastoralists and agropastoralists will need continued and scaled up support to prevent further livestock losses and protect the gains made.