Drought pushes millions of Kenyans to brink of famine


KENYA: The failure of the annual rains over three years has provoked a food crisis, writes Rob Crilly, in Wajir

The paediatric ward is full. Mothers from across this corner of northeastern Kenya have trekked to the dusty town of Wajir carrying skeletal babies in search of help. Every one of the beds holds a mother clutching a bag of bones hooked up to a life-sustaining drip.

Kenya may be the centre of the East African economy with a skyscraper-filled capital and all-inclusive beach resorts along its coast, but drought has sent millions of its population to the brink of famine.

This year the annual "hunger gap" - the time between food reserves dwindling and the next harvest - has come early, stretching international aid efforts already burdened by a simultaneous emergency in southern Africa.

Kenya's stocks of food will run out by the end of the month, according to an appeal launched by the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations this week. Yesterday, the Irish Government announced it was sending €5 million to bolster aid efforts across the Horn of Africa, where some 11 million people are at risk in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.

The aid cannot come soon enough for the people of Wajir.

At the hospital, Dr Ahmeddin Omar says six of his tiny charges died of malnutrition-related diseases last month - a rate unheard of in normal years.

Every day he has to turn away other babies. He only has enough room to treat the very sickest, he says.

"Once they are gaining weight we have to send them home," he adds in the cramped, gloomy interior of the hospital. "We are trying to raise the money to build another ward where they would have time to recover fully.

"That would be much better for them because if things carry on like this we will not be able to cope."

Little Said barely stirs in the bed beside the doctor. His mother, Kadija Abdi Rahman (19), brought him in after he suffered diarrhoea for three straight days.

At nine months he should weigh about 10kg. Instead his shrunken body registers barely 6kg on the scales.

"We have lost our animals - all of them - all our cattle and our goats," explains his mother quietly in the local Kisomali language.

The roads out of Wajir paint a grim picture. Bleached bones of long-dead cattle and the bloated carcases of goats, still too fresh to have been found by the circling crows, line the dusty tracks through this desiccated land.

Aid agencies estimate that 70 per cent of cattle have succumbed. Even the supposedly invincible camels have suffered. Almost 20,000 have died.

The town of Arbajahan, two hours down a dust road from Wajir, now resembles an animal graveyard. Heaps of half-cremated carcases surround its borehole where bony camels and goats jostle for water beside children queuing with Jerry cans.

Hussein Abdi (57) is one of the herders who have lost almost everything. He was once a wealthy man, with a 60-strong herd of cattle to prove it. Now he has just five survivors.

"Even the five left are lying down," he says. "They can't support themselves."

The smell of rotting flesh hangs in the air. In a society where cattle represent money in the bank, it is the smell of a community that is losing its ability to survive.

"This is not like a normal year," says Peter Smerdon of the World Food Programme.

"There are droughts every year but herders usually know where they can find pasture.

"This year the whole region is affected. People are walking huge circuits of hundreds of miles and they are not able to find anything."

There has been little rain for three years, turning most of the Horn of Africa into a dustbowl.

Shortages have intensified ethnic tensions as rival tribes stray on to each other's territory in search of grazing and water.

But while five successive failed rainy seasons are the primary cause of the hunger, the Kenyan media has savaged its government for a lacklustre response to an emergency many predicted months ago.

Kenya is not short of food. Grain silos remain well-stocked from last year's harvest but attempts to use the military in distributing this food have been criticised by charities as haphazard. In some cases aid has simply been thrown off trucks with little attempt to target those most in need.

Futhermore, the northeast contains one of the most marginalised communities in the country. The nomadic herders have more in common with their tribe-mates over the border in Somalia.

Kenyan leaders see few votes to be won in building roads or improving communications here.

The result is that malnutrition rates in the worst-affected areas have reached 30per cent. The United Nations uses 15 per cent as the threshold for an emergency.

Michael O'Riordain, Oxfam Ireland's humanitarian co-ordinator who has just returned from Kenya, said: "When malnutrition rates reach these levels, unless there is swift intervention, growing numbers of people will become severely malnourished and the mortality rate will rapidly accelerate."

This week the WFP and the Kenyan government issued an appeal for $220 million to fight starvation. They want to double the number of people receiving aid to 3.5 million.

Failure to reach those in need, says Oxfam, would result in Kenya's worst food crisis since independence in 1963.

"We can still stop this turning into full-blown crisis but only if donor governments like Ireland respond quickly and generously," said Mr O'Riordain.

Yesterday, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Conor Lenihan announced €5 million aid for the Horn of Africa and a second package of funding for other regions of Africa to be unveiled shortly.

"It is simply not acceptable in the 21st century that so many of the world's poor face such acute vulnerability and threats to survival," he added.