FEWS Kenya Food Security Warning 19 Mar 2004

Food Insecurity deepens in the Northwestern Pastoral Turkana and Marsabit Districts
Food insecurity has become increasingly precarious in Turkana and Marsabit districts in northwestern Kenya. An estimated 184,000 persons in both districts (32 percent of the total population) are considered highly food insecure following poor rainfall in some of these areas during the past two seasons and an upsurge in conflict, compounded by deepening chronic food insecurity.

Food security and nutritional assessments coordinated by UNICEF and carried out by the Ministry of Health (MoH), the Arid Lands Resource Management Project (ALRMP), OXFAM/GB and the World Vision have confirmed alarmingly high food insecurity in Katilu, Lokori and Lokitaung Divisions in Turkana District and Maikona, North Horr, and Loiyangalani Divisions in Marsabit District (Figure 1).

While cumulative October-December short rains were poor in Marsabit District, they were fairly normal in Turkana District, albeit poorly distributed (Figure 2). Unfortunately, the worst-affected areas did not benefit from the unexpected but good rains that fell elsewhere in both districts during January and February. Moreover, periodic conflict impinges on mobility, the time-tested strategy of pastoralists for coping with localized drought. In view of poor rains, conflict and other hazards, the food security of pastoralist groups is increasingly fragile. One poor season seems sufficient to precipitate a crisis. According to ALRMP, current pasture, browse and water are unlikely to support livestock until the beginning of the long rains in early April. However, a significant proportion of the pastoralists and their livestock have already moved to riverine areas and toward the west, close to Uganda, in areas that received fair rains in 2003 and unseasonable rains in 2004, easing pressures on livestock that remain.

As expected, the condition of cattle, camels and goats has deteriorated significantly as trekking distances between watering points have increased to over 20 kilometers while the frequency of waterings has been reduced to once every three days. Livestock prices are especially low in the worst-affected areas, such as in Katilu Division (Figure 3) where prolonged and increasingly severe conflict has impacted on the pastoral economy and, as a consequence, on pastoralist welfare.

In contrast, cereal prices have increased markedly in both districts and were more than 40 percent higher in February 2004 than in February 2003 in Lokitaung, another worst-affected division.

Since livestock are the sole source of food and income for many of these pastoral households, food security is now precarious in these districts. UNICEF, MoH, OXFAM/GB and World Vision nutritional assessments have reported distressing rates of child malnutrition in both districts. Preliminary results indicate that in Loiyangalani and Maikona Divisions of Marsabit, global acute malnutrition (GAM) rates for children under five years is an alarming 23.6 percent while the severe acute malnutrition (SAM) rate is 1.6 percent. The teams also found that the stunting rate for children was 19.9 percent with a severe stunting rate of 6.6 percent, indicating of serious chronic malnutrition. Results for Turkana District were even worse -- in the Eastern Zone that includes Lokitaung Division, the GAM rate was 34.4 percent, while the SAM rate was 5.4 percent. Figure 3 illustrates these worsening rates during the past three years based on surveys were conducted in March of each year, using the Weight for Height method.

UNICEF has pointed out that these high rates of GAM far exceed the "critical" threshold of 15 percent established by WHO, for which the usual recommendation is general distribution of food aid, with supplementary feeding for the affected under-fives. This critical malnutrition among the worst-affected pastoral households is a function of declining food availability at the present time, exacerbated by chronic food insecurity. Although previous food distributions in 2000-02 significantly reversed rates of child malnutrition, without food aid, these same areas once again report alarmingly high food insecurity. It is clear that food distributions without appropriate long-term multi-sectoral programs to transform and strengthen livelihoods are unlikely to reverse growing chronic food insecurity in a meaningful way.

Recommended Actions

FEWS NET endorses the recommendation by the Kenya Food Security Steering Group to immediately distribute 1,268 MT of food to 184,000 persons in Turkana and Marsabit districts for the next three months, together with supplementary and therapeutic feeding programs for malnourished individual children.

FEWS NET recommends continuous food security and nutrition monitoring by the ALRMP and the KFSSG in other areas of both districts that are likely to suffer similar food insecurity, should the April-June 2004 long rains fail.

FEWS NET endorses the recommendation by OXFAM/GB that livelihood recovery programs be put into place to transform pastoralism and strengthen the future coping capacities of the worst-affected pastoral households.

FEWS NET recommends that the government of Kenya put into place conflict resolution and peace building initiatives to help avert alarmingly high food insecurity reported even in areas that experienced favorable agroclimatic conditions last year, such as southern Turkana District, pointing out that weather is but only one of the factors compounding food insecurity in pastoral districts.