NAIROBI, Dec 30 (IPS) - The European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) has raised a red flag over the worsening food security situation in the Horn of Africa.
Karel De Gucht, European Commissioner in charge of development and humanitarian aid, attributes the disastrous situation to the terrible potential of climate change.
"Large parts of the Horn of Africa have had less than 75 percent of normal rainfall this year, having already endured a series of severe droughts. The population can no longer cope with such extreme and protracted hardship which often comes on top of conflict situation. As a result, more than 16 million people desperately need help," he said in a statement released by ECHO.
Initial optimism occasioned by forecasts of El Niño rains were thwarted when November proved largely dry. El Niño refers to a periodic warming of temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, far from East Africa's shores but with impacts on the country's rainfall and weather patterns.
Samuel Mwangi, acting assistant director of Kenya's national weather forecasting services explains that El Niño has been linked with greater rainfall during the annual "short rains" in East Africa, between October and December.
ECHO warns that if the December rains are below average, parts of Kenya may suffer irreparable damage.
ECHO regional information officer Daniel Dickinson told IPS, "In the face of the unfolding drought situation, ECHO is providing 50 million euros in humanitarian aid to vulnerable drought-affected people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. The rains have failed and people have exhausted the coping mechanisms which they had and urgently need help."
Kenya's minister for special programmes, Naomi Shaban, issued a similar warning in mid- December over the worsening food security situation across the country.
Speaking as she flagged off relief food worth $80,000 donated by Telkom Kenya and World Vision Kenya, Shaban said ten districts across the country are facing an imminent crisis in relation to food insecurity.
"Unfortunately, the country has experienced another season of failed rains which is expected to increase the current levels of food insecurity. Although Kenya's food security is still on the borderline, many districts are at risk of sliding into an acute food and livelihood crisis. This situation is made worse by high food prices," Shaban explained.
In Kenya, Dickinson says it is estimated 3.8 million people currently rely on humanitarian aid and the situation is worsening. with acute malnutrition above 20 percent in five districts.
The government of Kenya has increased its monthly spending on relief food to $1.3 million per month to assist those facing starvation. In early 2009, the government declared the unfolding food security situation a national disaster, stating that 10 million Kenyans were unable to access food.
In Ethiopia, ECHO reports indicate with several consecutive crop failures, the nutritional situation in that country has deteriorated badly and is expected to worsen further.
The story unfolding in Somalia is similar, with the situation aggravated by ongoing conflict. In Uganda, ECHO indicates 2.2 million people in northern Acholi and Karamoja regions face food insecurity.
According to Famine Early Warning Systems Network (which issues alerts on food insecurity) poor rains in November have revised prospects for widespread food security improvements that were expected to manifest toward the end of December in Kenya.
Those set to be adversely affected include pastoral households who already face unrelenting prices for food, an outbreak of cholera and heightened conflict over limited pasture and water in drought conditions.
However, Mwangi says sections of the country have experienced increased rainfall as predicted, which means good harvests will be recorded in certain areas.
"It must be pointed out that the poor performance of rainfall is not widespread across the country. There are areas that will still record good harvests from the rainfall received during the season.
In Coast, Northeastern, Eastern and Central Provinces, the rainfall was characterised by heavy storms in the second half of the month. This significantly enhanced the total rainfall amounts recorded in these provinces," Mwangi says.
It is not clear whether good harvests in these areas will cover the predicted shortfalls in the rest of the country.
Priscah Nzilani a domestic worker in Nairobi's Eastlands area and a single mother of four says she has nothing to be cheerful about as she ushers in the New Year. She is wrought with worry about the demands the forthcoming year will place on her family.
"Since 2007 the cost of food has been increasing steadily, reaching levels that are out of reach for most Kenyans. The failed rains brought with them more troubles with the cost of electricity reaching a record high. We also had consistent water shortages which continue to persist and we are forced to dig deeper into our pockets to buy water at an extra cost. With this kind of scenario how does one find it in their heart to be cheerful about the New Year?" she pauses.
Nzilani adds that with the failure of the much anticipated El Niño rains, there is no reprieve for Kenyans.
"I am worried that my earnings as a domestic worker will not suffice to feed and educate my children as well as meet their other basic needs. We have been surviving by skipping meals and at this rate I think we shall have to make do with only one meal a day," she says with a forlorn look on her face.