In-depth: Another Kenya - The humanitarian cost of under-development

KENYA: "Children are on the brink of death" in northeast

Pastoralists are travelling further to water their herds (file photo)
ISIOLO-LAIKIPIA, 23 September 2009 (IRIN) - The drought that has ravaged parts of northeastern Kenya, killing a large number of livestock, has affected the availability of milk, in turn undermining child nutrition, say officials.

"I decided to migrate from Losuk [in Samburu District] to save the remaining livestock and my family, but they almost perished along the way," Joseph Lemanyan, a livestock keeper, said.

"Most [of my livestock] died as we migrated. My youngest child, a girl, became ill and died on the way."

Lemanyan's family is among hundreds to have moved south to the foothills of Mount Kenya, but there they lost more cattle because of the cold weather.

"I arrived here [in August] with 42 [heads of] cattle... half of them have died due to cold here," said the father of five, who left Losuk after losing 64 heads of cattle within three months.

The death of so many cattle has reduced the supply of milk, which should form a large part of the daily diet of children.

"Children are on the brink of death... The numbers of malnourished children coming to our feeding centres is going up and up and we expect it to get worse," Catherine Fitzgibbon, Save the Children’s deputy director in Kenya, said on 22 September.

"If we cannot get more food or cash to the region urgently to help families buy food, more children will die."

Photo: Melvin Chibole/ActionAid
Livestock deaths have in turn affected children’s health (file photo)
One meal a day

Most of the rural population in the areas where Save the Children is working is heavily dependent on relief food and many children are eating only one meal a day, of corn porridge.

"This poor diet means they are missing out on vital nutrients, which can mean they grow up stunted and their brains and bodies can suffer permanent damage," the organization said.

Since July, the number of severely malnourished children seeking treatment at its northeastern emergency feeding centres has increased by 25 percent.

Molu Sora, the programme manager in the Marsabit Arid Lands Resource Management office, said livestock had also died across the rangelands stretching between Kenya and Ethiopia. "Animal carcasses are all over the place," he said.

As a result, many families, mostly comprising women and children, are trekking long distances to save remaining livestock herds, said Francis Merinyi, a child rights activist with the ILAMAIYO community group in Laikipia.

School attendance

Merinyi said a survey conducted in Laikipia West District in August found that about 900 children had left school to join the migrating herds. More children had also been forced to work.

Increased conflicts among pastoralists have also been reported. On 15 September, at least 400 Pokot raiders attacked Samburu manyattas (homesteads), killing 21 residents. Eleven raiders were also killed, according to the Kenya Red Cross.

Observers say El Niño-related short rains, expected from mid-September to December, could either help or aggravate the situation.

"The government and donors need to be aware of the changing climate now and in future, and shape their policies accordingly," Philippa Crosland-Taylor, head of Oxfam GB in Kenya, said in August.

"Emergency aid is urgently needed now, but in the long term we need to rethink policies to focus on mitigating the risks of droughts before they occur, rather than rushing in food aid when it is too late."