Successive poor rains coupled with rising food and fuel prices are leading to a worsening food security situation with alarming levels of acute malnutrition being recorded in drought affected parts of Kenya, mainly in the north of the country, say experts.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2011 is the driest period in the eastern Horn of Africa since 1995 “with no likelihood of improvement until early 2012”.
"From the nutrition point of view, it is possibly the worst we have seen in the last 20 years," Noreen Prendiville, chief of nutrition at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Kenya office, told IRIN, noting that increased global acute malnutrition rates of over 35 percent are being seen in some drought-affected areas.
"In less serious situations, one would hear so many requests for assistance with livestock or water, but just now, the number one request is food and the need is substantial and urgent."
While past droughts have been longer, such as the 2008-09 one, “the current drought is severe, and its impacts have been exacerbated by extremely high food prices, reduced coping capacity, and a limited humanitarian response,” said the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).
“The high food and fuel prices have affected the capacity of the very poor to buy food and to access basic services... The international response has been affected by the global economic crisis," Prendiville said. "The problem of insecurity too has caused a lot of displacement." she added.
The predominantly northern pastoral region is often the scene of resource-based clashes leading to the displacement of some communities. In May alone in Turkana, 16 armed livestock raids took place with thousands of heads of livestock stolen, according to data compiled by the UN.
According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), two consecutive below-average rainfall seasons have resulted in failed harvests, depletion of grazing resources and significant livestock mortality in the Horn of Africa region. In Kenya, FAO added in a statement, the food security situation is expected to further deteriorate as milk production in the drought-affected areas has collapsed and will not recover until October when the short rains are expected to start.
In the northeastern Garissa region, the food scarcity has led to an increase in the number of people relying on food aid. “Most farmers have lost their livestock. The situation is moving from bad to worse,” Garissa District Commissioner Samson Macharia told IRIN.
Macharia said the number of food aid recipients in Garissa County, excluding those in the Ijara area, had risen to 116,850 - up from 101,600 in March. This total represents about 40 percent of the county’s population.
A planned food security assessment is expected to further increase this number, he said.
Food prices have shot up in Garissa, like elsewhere, with a kilogramme of meat selling at about 400 shillings (US$4.7) compared to 250-300 ($3-$3.5) in 2010. The price of a litre of milk has also almost tripled to 80 shillings (95 US cents) over a similar period, Garissa trader Hassan Ali Ibrahim, told IRIN.
"There is no milk, no meat. The livestock have died or migrated to Somalia," said Ibrahim. "The children are emaciated and having diarrhoea. If you are human, you would be affected by the situation here."
According to FAO, wholesale maize prices in Kenya in May in the main urban markets of Nairobi and Mombasa were 60-85 percent above the levels of May 2010.
The food security of an estimated 2.4 million people is likely to decline after June in most northern pastoral and the southeastern and coastal marginal agricultural areas, said FEWSNET, which further warned that food security could decline to emergency levels among pastoralists.
At present, UNICEF and partners are scaling up nutrition and health outreach and clinic services in the affected areas to deal with the high number of malnourished children needing therapeutic and supplementary feeding. A low human resource capacity, long distances to affected regions and few health resources are, however, challenges.
The government also announced, on 14 June, a doubling of the monthly allocation of famine relief food (maize, beans and rice) to affected areas. Other interventions include livestock offtake programmes and maize importation to boost declining food reserves.
With drought being a cyclic event in the Horn of Africa region, experts are calling for longer-term approaches in mitigation.
"Food insecurity in the northern Kenya region is a running emergency. There is a need for more thinking on what can be done in the long term," Misheck Laibuta, Oxfam GB Kenya livelihoods and food security adviser, told IRIN. “There is a need for well-thought out solutions. There will need to be investment in initiatives such as alternative livelihoods and water management.”
According to FAO’s regional emergency coordinator for Eastern and Central Africa, Rod Charters, “the challenge ahead is to empower farmers and pastoralists to adapt to the new realities of high variability of weather patterns and more frequent extreme weather events.”