Millions need emergency aid as severe drought hits Kenya

Anthony Mwangi, north-eastern Kenya
The stench from the dead carcasses of cattle filled the air as convoys of vehicles streamed through dusty villages in Mandera and Wajir in northeastern Kenya. After the failure of the October to December rains, the reality on the ground is grave, and the lives and livelihoods of thousands of nomadic cattle farmers are at stake.

More than one million people in 18 districts have needed food aid because of drought since 2004. Rainfall has continued to be inadequate. Now an estimated 2.5 million people need emergency food and other aid.

A fact-finding team toured Mandera and Wajir Districts on 22 December 2005 to assess needs due to the drought. The team comprised the Kenya Red Cross Society's (KRCS) disaster committee chairman Laban Kitele, disaster preparedness and response director Farid Abdulkadir, the Kenyan Minister for Special Programmes (in charge of Disasters), members of parliament from the affected districts and government officials.

"Thirty per cent of the livestock has died and the remainder is at risk of perishing," said Mandera District Commissioner Waweru Kimani. "The drought is expected to worsen in the next few weeks since rains are not expected until April 2006," he warned.

The Mandera Hospital medical officer of health, Boniface Musila, said ten people, mostly children, have already died of malnutrition-related complications. "More lives will be lost if relief intervention is not immediate," said Dr. Musila.

There is only one therapeutic feeding centre in Mandera with a capacity of 40 children. "Sixty children are currently at the centre with severe malnutrition, kwashiorkor (a form of malnutrition caused by lack of protein), dysentery and diarrhoea caused by the drought," explained Dr. Musila.

A government report says the percentage of children at risk of hunger or already malnourished is higher than normal. Some children are relying on medication to survive, and their cash-strapped families have to pay for the treatment.

Dr Musila asked for immediate outside help. "Things are not just bad, they are very bad. We need immediate intervention at the health centres and to provide food to adults. We need to ensure a high survival rate for animals."

He said emergency funds were needed for boreholes and water tankers for the whole district of Mandera. He feared that the situation could lead to conflict between communities at water points that were already overstretched.

The normal October to December short rains failed and so 95% of boreholes, earth dams and water pans in Mandera district have dried up. The remaining water sources cannot cope with constant demand from livestock and humans. The distance travelled to fetch water in areas not served by boreholes or water trucking services has increased from four to six kilometres to eight to twelve kilometres. The queuing time for domestic water in boreholes has also increased from the normal one to two hours to twelve to eighteen hours.

Many households are resorting to selling animals at less than 10% of their normal value. The collapse of the livestock market in major centres has led to hardship.

In response, the Kenya Red Cross Society has provided Ksh 4 million (US$ 550,000 / € 465,000) to buy starving livestock including camels, cattle, sheep and goats, to improve people's diet and to provide resources for the remaining animals when pasture and water conditions improve. The Secretary General of the Kenya Red Cross Society, Abbas Gullet, said the Red Cross had never before bought starving livestock from farmers.

"This system is being adopted as the best way forward to bring back livelihoods for the pastoralists, who are then able to utilise the resources to sustain their families for a period of time," he said. "Animal take-off is the best way of preserving the dignity of pastoralists receiving aid and is also the most suitable long-term solution."

The Red Cross has begun implementing the animal take-off programme in the Mandera region and will soon begin it in Wagir Marasabit, Kagiado, Garissa and Espolo.

Abiba Bora, 55, is one of many farmers who are distraught after losing animals to the drought. The Red Cross programme to buy livestock was put in place too late for her goats. She stood by her dead animals and pondered her next move. With 21 grandchildren to feed, she has nowhere to turn to for support. "I do not know what I am going to do now. I fear that my remaining goats will soon perish," she said. Being a pastoralist, she relies on livestock for survival.

Even camels, which are normally able to withstand weeks without water, are dying. Red Cross disaster preparedness and response director Farid Adbulkadir said, "When camels begin to die, as we have seen, it is a clear sign of the severity of the situation."

"We are appealing to Kenyans to donate relief food to support the people. We hope that this Christmas season will see generosity from well wishers," Mr Abdulkadir said.

The Kenya Red Cross will continue to work to ensure more lives are not lost as a result of the drought. Currently, it is the lead agency for the government drought operation in Kwale district, where the KRCS supports 87,060 people with relief distributions. In addition to providing more food, the Kenya Red Cross will truck water for people and animals, and build or repair water systems.

For its part, the International Federation has allocated more than 425,000 Swiss francs (€ 273,000 / US $ 325,000) from its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund for immediate aid and detailed assessments. In collaboration with the KRCS, it is preparing an international appeal, to be launched in the coming days.