Mwai Kibaki, the Kenyan president, is once again appealing for $221 million in international aid and foodstuffs as the country enters its fifth year of persistent drought, standing on the brink of famine time and again.

Over the past year, the two rainy seasons of April to May and September to October have both failed. The north-east, where an estimated 3.5 million people are currently suffering the effects, has been particularly hard hit.

It has been declared the worst natural disaster to hit Kenya since the drought of 1971, where the communities in the north-east lost close to 70% of their livestock. If the long rains of March to May fail this year, it will be the worst disaster to ever hit Kenya.

Mohammed Qazilbash, the senior programme manager of Care Kenya, says: "On a provincial scale, the drought has metastasised throughout the region. Previously acceptable areas, where pasture was available, have all been severely affected."

He says nomads now find themselves without a safe haven to return to. 

Regional implications

"They are used to moving temporarily, and to then return home once the rains commence. The regional implications could be far more detrimental ... if the people in Somalia, Kenya, and southern Ethiopia, continue to be affected, we could see mass displacement over political borders," Qazilbash said.

Kenya has appealed for $221m
in international aid

The Kenyan government has implemented relief response on two critical levels in the hope of addressing the matter.

 

The first has been a co-ordinated effort on the local level by appointing a series of assessment committees to address the needs of the most marginalised communities.

The second is a regional response to ensure that populations do not move across political borders.

"Care, in conjunction with WFP and Echo Germany, is positioned on the Somali side, as well as on the Kenyan side, of the border. The food distribution takes place on both sides of the border simultaneously. It is not foolproof, and people are indeed moving as food is necessary," Qazilbash told Aljazeera.net.

As NGOs maintain their efforts and expand to newly affected areas, Kibaki makes repeated appeals for international aid. 

Unfortunately, due to current allegations of corruption in the Kenyan government, the World Bank has frozen financial support amounting to more than $250 million.

Corruption allegations

The recent Anglo Leasing and Goldenberg scandals are raising eyebrows across the country and worldwide, as the same government pleads for international support to feed the hungry.

Corruption in Kenya has gained international attention in the past few weeks, and against this backdrop the issue of what Kenya is doing to support their drought-stricken citizens is in question.

"... if the people in Somalia, Kenya, and southern Ethiopia, continue to be affected, we could see mass displacement over political borders"

Mohammed Qazilbash,
Senior Programme Manager,
Care Kenya

Billions of dollars have passed through the country in the past five years, to go to temporary relief and food aid in suffering regions.

These donations might last a community three months until the short rains come the following year, but no long-term plans are put into place to stop this cycle of drought and famine from occurring year after year.

Poor infrastructure continues to contribute to the long-term problem. Lack of a decent road network in the northern regions of Kenya makes the region inaccessible and the situation monumental.

Trucks must traverse hostile terrain, and the maintenance of vehicles and rising cost of petrol makes these efforts difficult for the already impoverished communities to coordinate.

Power disruption

This year, almost five million Kenyans are feeling the effects of food shortage and more than three million need regular food rations to survive. Drought not only affects pasture, watering holes, and food availability, but also Kenya's power production, which is based on the hydro-electric system.

The cost of basic needs has gone up almost threefold, as the government rations power and water across the country.

The drought has had a
devastating impact on livestock

For a country that experiences drought and food shortage every year in the same months, it is a contradiction to run the country's power with hydro-electric facilities.

Although wind power is expensive and might be impractical for these communities, solar power is available and techniques are already being experimented with for small businesses, in areas such as the Kibera slums of Nairobi.

Stephen Mbogoh, an agricultural economist from the University of Nairobi, suggests thermal and solar power for estranged communities in the north-east parts of the country, and believes that this collection of solar power could also be used for fuelling irrigation in drier regions.

"Infrastructure is a general term. Road and air transport are a part of the infrastructure, as well as technology. These areas of poor infrastructure need to look toward wind and solar, as the districts worst affected are dependent on hydro-electric power," he says.

Mbogoh offers advice on the topic of solar power for drought-affected regions, and continues to say that another way to curb drought is to change the hundreds of years of cattle herding tradition of nomadic communities.

Livestock factor

"Ninety per cent of the dependency of the people in these drought-affected areas is on livestock animals. This is from generations of tradition. People need to reduce their livestock," Mbogoh says.

"By minimising the amount of the animals, you can improve the diversity of their environments, and in turn change their livelihood. It is not an issue of restricting movements, but diversifying the livelihoods into other activities and keeping less animals," Mbogoh told Aljazeera.net.

To ask communities such as the Masaai in central Kenya, and Somali pastoralists in the North East, to change their cultural traditions, herd less cattle, and become farmers, seems impractical.

"Ninety per cent of the dependency of the people in these drought-affected areas is on livestock animals. This is from generations of tradition. People need to reduce their livestock"

Stephen Mbogoh,
agricultural economist,
University of Nairobi

Politicians and scholars continue to discuss the problems in hand and the potential solutions, without actually putting the necessary infrastructure into place to help citizens maintain their traditional lifestyles.

"One year ago, I started out with 105 cattle and now I am only left with 35," says a nomadic herder who lives on the outskirts of Sabuli, 40km from Dagahale Refugee Camp, the most reliable source of water in the area.

Community leaders and NGOs alike have described the current situation as a dry tsunami, and the worst drought this generation has seen.

The tidal wave of drought is now claiming the livelihoods of many nomadic societies in and around Kenya, and if the situation remains in its current, static state, the onset of famine will affect communities in Kenya's north-east regions in the next three months.

First picture ©Stephen Digges, WIR & Jennifer Warren, WIR