Kenya: Hunger mounts as drought hits herders

As Kenya's drought destroys pasture land, herder communities are feeling the brunt of the regional hunger crisis. Marcus Prior travelled to the northern Laikipia region to see the devastating effects of the drought on one community now receiving WFP support.

ILPOLE -- The road to Ilpole is littered with carcasses, most of them scavenged to the bone by vultures and bleached white by the fiery sun. At Ilpole, a small trading post some 45 minutes drive northwest of Nanyuki in Kenya's Laikipia district, we arrive just as a distribution of WFP food is getting underway.

Where possible, women find shade under thorn trees, but many are out in the blazing sun. They are first-timers - up to now, life has been bearable. No longer. In this village alone, there are over 500 families entitled to receive assistance.

The Laikipia region is a melting point of Kenya's current problems. Rancher is set against pastoralist, pastoralist is set against farmer. Water is scarce and getting scarcer. Livestock prices are plummeting while food prices remain high. Drought is now turning the screw even tighter.

Cattle in poor shape

Pauline Meshani is 42, has eight children aged between 22 and two, and has not seen her husband for several weeks. He is away with the few cows and sheep they have left, she believes on the slopes of Mount Kenya, where the little remaining pasture is now at risk from overgrazing.

"We used to have 60 sheep and now we have just 20," she told me. Her livestock that remain are in poor shape, and will not fetch much on the local market. Meanwhile, staple food costs remain well above average for this time of year.

In a school not far away, we hear that numbers are down. WFP was forced to stop providing school meals in this area at the end of last year in order to prioritise the worst affected areas. But now it seems everywhere people are struggling to get by.

Fewer kids at school

"When there were school meals here, parents usually felt comfortable to leave their children in school while they went off with the animals," the headmaster, Dixon Muthungu told us. "Enrolment this year has already dropped by 80 students, and if this drought continues, I expect more dropouts."

This is the fourth bad year in succession for the pastoralists of northern Kenya. As herders move with their cattle in search of pasture, conflict between communities is inevitable.

Food assistance will not solve a problem driven largely by climate change. That is why WFP is spearheading water-harvesting projects and gently encouraging those pastoralists that do farm to plant drought resistant crops such as millet and sorghum.