A Journey through Drought Ravaged Northwestern Region of Kenya

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Mary –Sanyu Osire

Kenya - Worst drought in 60 years

It is unbearably hot in Turkana. Sand stretches for miles, cactus plants wither, and dust replaces pasture. Sprawling empty arid land stretches for miles. The worst drought in 60 years has swept across the Horn of Africa, causing the death of children, livestock and crops. Over 12 million people are affected by the drought, including the residents of Turkana, a district in north-west Kenya.

"I could walk up to four hours away from my house in search of water," Alice Napong, a resident of Napadal village in northern Turkana, says. She fastens her son to her back with a length of cloth, places an empty container on her head, and reaches for a small container with her right hand: "We have always had to search for water, but it has never been this hard."

Weak health systems

The nearest health centre is many kilometres away, leaving the pastoralist communities in remote areas of Turkana vulnerable. With limited access to safe drinking water and essential health care, waterborne and water-related diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera are common challenges. Such diseases can be successfully treated with oral rehydration solution and antibiotics but in regions like Turkana, health centres are rare, and the few that exist lack basic supplies and qualified health staff.

Worldwide, around 1.1 billion people lack access to safe water sources and 2.4 billion have no basic sanitation. Waterborne diseases are a leading cause of preventable deaths around the world, and are among the five major causes of death in children under the age of five.

Health promotion

"My five daughters are consistently suffering from diarrhoea," says Alice.

Alice and her children are one of many families who have received treatment for diarrhoeal diseases from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In partnership with Kenya's Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, IOM's mobile medical rapid response teams go to hard-to-reach mobile communities in Turkana. Equipped with re-hydration sachets, chlorine water treatment tablets, de-worming tablets, and drugs for common medical conditions, the teams distribute much needed medication and conduct mass de-worming campaigns.

Small changes can have a big impact. This has been proved by the health and hygiene promotion talks that IOM is also running in these communities. Sensitive to cultural practices and the need for sustainability, IOM's health promotion campaign incorporates local knowledge and indigenous solutions. For example, communities are encouraged to wash their hands with ash, a local disinfectant that is free and easily accessible. 55,000 vulnerable members of the community are being targeted by IOM's outreach teams.

In 2009 and 2010, IOM dispatched four teams on similar missions to crisis-affected communities in Kenya's Rift Valley, Western, and Nyanza provinces that were struggling to prevent and fight against waterborne diseases. Over 492,000 people benefited.

According to Grace Khaguli, Field Coordinator for IOM's emergency health project in Turkana: "Due to the scale of the drought, water is scarce. This makes Alice Napong and her daughters more inclined to drink dirty, unsafe water. What is happening to them is replicated in households across Turkana. Residents use contaminated water and the area has very few toilets, which contributes to improper waste disposal."

Senior Elder, Echepan Ngelecha, a community leader in Nadapal Village, says: "In our culture, we divide illnesses into those caused by God and those caused by Ngidekesiney ka ekapilan (witchcraft). Thanks to IOM, we are now aware that we can do certain things to prevent illnesses. This partnership needs to continue because it takes time to change behaviour, like remembering to use ash when we wash our hands, in order to prevent the spread of diseases."