Kenya's rural drought hurts city dwellers


Crops have shriveled, hundreds of cattle are dead and the World Food Program said Tuesday that 3,8-million Kenyans need emergency food aid because of a prolonged drought, which is even causing electrical blackouts in the capital because there's not enough water for hydroelectric plants.

With rivers thinning to a trickle and mountaintop glaciers shrinking, authorities this month began rationing power in the capital, darkening homes and businesses at least three days a week.

In Nairobi's posh, leafy neighbourhoods, light bulbs flicker as generators rumble to life. Gym treadmills in luxury hotels jolt to a halt.

The slums, where roughly half the capital's four million residents live, are being hit the worst. Taps have run dry and residents often wait for days for trucks to deliver expensive potable water.

Business owners say they're losing money, harming Kenya's rebound from the violent aftermath of a 2007 presidential election that eviscerated the economy and killed more than 1 000 people.

In Nairobi's Kosovo slum, hotel manager Irungu wa Kogi said he's already laid off two waiters. Before the power cuts, the main attraction at his small, tin-roofed hotel was a television. Now the television -- and the restaurant -- are silent.

"A lot of young men are becoming unemployed and they can't provide for their families," he said. "Crime will definitely go up."

Prime Minister Raila Odinga this month warned of a "catastrophe" if seasonal rains don't come in October and November. He expressed fear that inter-clan violence could ensue. Kenya's grain harvest is expected to be 28% lower. Food prices have jumped by as much as 130%.

In Nairobi's sprawling Kibera slum, tailor Joseph Owino, 40, said he expects that power cuts and customer's financial problems will slash his income this month by some 80%, to less than US$12. He and his six children now eat a meager breakfast of maize meal and black tea and skip lunch.

"We buy hoofs which have been thrown away and cook them with vegetables so that it has a meaty taste," he said. "Don't even ask me the last time I drank a soda." In the parched countryside, it is even worse. In many places, the air stinks of rotting cattle carcasses.

Peruan Lesakut, a Maasai herdsman, said he had 120 cattle in July but now has only 56, all emaciated.

"I cannot sell my animals," he said. "I will stay here until they all die."

Eunice Wairimu's maize, bean and potato harvests on her small farm in Laikipia, 200 km north of Nairobi, have failed for the past three years. The 45-year-old relies on handouts from the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP).

"I can't say the last time I used sugar or ate meat," she said in her one-room home.

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist, said she is worried about Kenya's future.

"We see carcasses of animals everywhere," said Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in conservation, women's rights and clean government. "You could easily see carcasses of people everywhere."

The WFP has called for US$230-million in donations to feed hungry Kenyans.

"Life has never been easy for the poor in Kenya, but right now conditions are more desperate than they have been for a decade," said Burkard Oberle, WFP's Kenya Country Director.

WFP already is providing emergency food aid to some 2,5- million Kenyans, but another 1,3-million still need help, said spokeswoman Gabrielle Menezes.