Kenya crisis background note - Oxfam


Despite a 15% above average harvest and a 2005 GDP growth rate of some 5%, a critical food deficit has emerged in areas of northern and eastern Kenya. This could not have occurred on the present scale without the underlying issues of inequity, marginalization and inadequate development policies.

As many as 3.5 million people, mainly nomadic pastoralists, are at risk in a crisis triggered by consecutive disrupted rainy seasons (1). Capacity to resist such a shock is low due to long-term chronic poverty and limited livelihood alternatives for pastoralists. The crisis will deepen until the rains arrive in April. Should those rains fail, there will be a major humanitarian disaster.

Action Required

Emergency response:

The Government of Kenya (GoK) and the international community must respond urgently to prevent further human suffering by providing food aid, water and health assistance. Oxfam calls for a robust response to the GoK/UN Appeal for USD 233 million launched on 8th February, with a frontloading of resources in this critical period.

Even if the rains do come continuing humanitarian assistance will be required, and also measures such as livestock restocking and direct cash injections will be needed to recover livelihoods and revitalise markets, requiring further donor support.

Prevention and mitigation of recurring crises:

Over the past 10 years, a drought Early Warning System (EWS) has been developed in Kenya. The weakness of the EWS is the disconnect between it and an early response mechanism that could ensure prompt action.

This disconnect stems from a lack of resources underpinning such response capacity. Therefore, Oxfam is calling for the GoK and international donors to jointly support the proposed National Drought Management Contingency Fund as a critical element of improved drought management in Kenya.

Addressing the causes:

Once the situation has been stabilised, the GoK should address the underdevelopment of these marginal areas. The GoK's Arid Lands Development Policy, which has been developed over the past 10 years, is a technically sound roadmap, covering health and education services, livestock improvement, and environmental conservation. Political will to adopt these policies as a priority is fundamental, while allocation of resources is required for their realisation. International donor engagement is required to support the GoK in this endeavour.

Chronic and acute aspects of the crisis (2)

The current drought conditions have led to the death of thousands of livestock. More than 70% of animals are expected to die before the rains arrive. This massive loss of assets has provoked local market collapse with as much as 70% of the trading kiosks closing (3). This complex livelihood crisis compounded by increasing scarcity of water and food is having a major impact on people's health. Because of the extent of the losses, households are unlikely to be able to recover without significant external support.

Malnutrition rates in North-eastern Kenya are nearly double the WHO emergency threshold of 15% Global Acute Malnutrition (4). As many as 35% of children under five are undernourished and are in highly fragile physical condition. Beyond the immediate suffering, children recovering from such a trauma require many months of nutritional support and risk suffering long-term physical and mental developmental deficits. Human suffering associated with this crisis is severe and threatens to worsen.

Poor rains do not inevitably equate with crisis. In this case they are the trigger rather than the cause of the crisis. Obviously, low rainfall causes difficulties for pastoralists, but the gravity of the current situation stems from the lack of mechanisms with which to cope and sustain themselves (5), itself a product of years of neglect by central government. Pastoralist communities have poor access to essential services such as primary health care, education and veterinary services, and have little influence over the policies of central government (6).

Recurring drought - the cumulative impact

Drought affects Kenya on a 4-5 year cycle, with 1973-74, 1984-85 and 1992-94 being periods of extreme drought (7). The cyclic history of drought and the escalating human impact is illustrated in the following table:

Year of Drought
Number of People Affected
16,000 people
20,000 people
40,000 people
200,000 people
1.5 million people
1.4 million people
4.4 million people
3.5 million people

Source: National Disaster Management Policy, Republic of Kenya, 2004

The table illustrates the progressive human impact with recurring drought. Between on-set and recovery, each drought episode stretches over a 3-4 year period. Drought conditions have arguably become the norm. The rapid rate of recurrence does not allow adequate recovery time before the next shock occurs. Reflecting this is an ever-increasing number of pastoralist households who have lost all assets and now rely on kinship support for survival. Census statistics indicate that some 64% of people living in North Eastern province live below the poverty line as compared to a national average of 53% Geographic Dimensions of Well-Being in Kenya, Central Bureau of Statistics while more recent studies indicate that pastoralist wealth in the area has declined by more than 50% over the past 10 years. At the household level, food supplies from livestock have dramatically declined with pastoralists increasingly relying on wild foods and aid as core sources of sustenance. Oxfam Household Economy survey underway; Pastoralist Special Initiative Research Project, 2005.

Recurrent drought conditions also hold significant risk of increased conflict as groups are pushed into desperate competition over limited water and grazing resources. This insecurity in turn restricts mobility patterns, further constraining those at risk. The numbers of conflicts have increased along with increasing numbers of casualties. Some 40 people were recently killed during a clash between Turkana and neighbouring Ethiopian pastoralists, underlining the regional dimension of this crisis.


(1) KFSSG estimate in Feb 2006.

(2) Oxfam has been directly engaged with pastoralist communities for many years and so much of this paper focuses on their circumstances.

(3) These statistics are drawn from an Oxfam internal report on the Wajir Food Security Situation, December 2005.

(4) MUAC surveys by Merlin and MSF in Dec 2005; weight/height survey by UNICEF in Oct 2005

(5) Mechanisms include buffer food stocks or alternative food sources, alternative income sources, migration options, emergency governmental support, social safety nets, etc.

(6)There is a particular lack of adaptation of essential service provision to suit nomadic lifestyle.

(7) Rainfall Variability and Drought in Sub-Saharan Africa, FAO, 1996.

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