Kenya, like several other countries in the Horn of Africa region, is frequently affected by drought, and populations in the country's arid and semi-arid areas bear the brunt of food insecurity, water shortages and livestock loss.
Drought is a recurrent natural disaster whose humanitarian impact is no less devastating than other, more sudden disasters like floods or earthquakes. But because drought is more of a process than an event – with a subtle beginning and a severity that builds gradually over time – it is often overlooked as a disaster. According to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFCR) annual World Disasters Report, drought causes more deaths than any other natural disaster.
Drought is difficult for experts and emergency-response actors to deal with because its impact and severity are often determined by a wide range of elements beyond their control. Issues of governance, equitable food distribution and logistics of food transport to marginalised areas come into play, as well as the need for long-term mitigation strategies.
Throughout history, many regions of the world have experienced drought, with varying degrees of impact. Drought is a natural disaster that without proper management triggers other, man-made tragedies like famine, widespread displacement and death. Because of this, preparation for and response to drought is more complex and politically charged than other natural disasters.
In April, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said that up to two million Kenyans, most of them residents of arid or semi-arid regions of the country, will need food assistance this year.
Over 80 percent of Kenya's landmass is arid or semi-arid and receives low and unevenly distributed rainfall, according to the Arid Lands Resource Management Project (ALRMP), a department within the Office of the President tasked with reducing vulnerability among residents of drought-prone areas.
Despite low precipitation levels and recurrent droughts, development experts say that with better planning and increased resource allocation to the agriculture sector Kenya has the capacity to rid itself of food insecurity.
"The strategies that have been used have not been focusing on sustainable mechanisms of ensuring that there is food security continuously," said Lawrence Mwagwabi, programme development coordinator with ActionAid Kenya.
"Kenya has 660,000 ha of irrigable land, yet year in, year out we talk about rain failure and inability to produce. The reality is that if we irrigated these 660,000 ha, then there is definitely a possibility of addressing the food-security situation," he explained.
Mwagwabi said that there was also a tendency in Kenya to rely too much on maize and neglect traditional drought-resistant crops.
The provision of relief food over long periods tends to create a cycle of dependency among the affected communities, he added, especially if they repeatedly suffer from the effects of drought.
"We have created some form of dependency: Communities that have been continuously exposed to food relief have actually ended up depending on food relief and not exploiting any other opportunities within their own environment to sustain themselves," said Mwagwabi.
He thinks the best way for the government to support communities that frequently depend in food aid is to improve their coping mechanisms.
"The good thing is that we have a lot of expertise that has not been tapped. We have all these NGOs doing a lot of beautiful work on the ground, but where is the synergy?" asked Mwagwabi. "I think that government needs to look into how all these people can be brought together - even the farmers - to try to look at mechanisms that we can exploit.
"When I was working in Malindi, an area that has been exposed to a lot of relief food, we had a discussion with the community and looked at the situation they were experiencing and the opportunities that were available to address the food-security issues. We started with a very small project, tapping water from the Galana [River] and irrigating the land around that river, and the result was actually very exciting. That year  we were actually able to contain the food [shortage] situation," said Mwagwabi.
Communities and the government should learn from these small success stories and develop “a strategy that can really ensure that we have food on a day-to-day basis, rather than saying we wait until we start asking for pledges from friendly countries,” he said.
This past February, in a bid to address the problem of food insecurity, the Kenyan government collaborated with donors and launched a plan to improve agricultural production. Implementation of the programme included making quality seeds available to farmers, maintaining soil fertility, improving small-scale water-management projects and strengthening farmers' advisory services.
"It is unacceptable that so long after our independence we are unable to produce enough food for all our people," President Mwai Kibaki said during the launch of the plan on 22 February.
The president said that an economic-recovery programme for the arid and semi-arid areas of the north and the northeast, where livestock production accounted for about 90 percent of employment and family incomes had also been drafted.
The plan focused on increasing pastoral-livestock production by providing water, establishing disease-free zones, improving breeding services and promoting an efficient, private-sector-led marketing system, he said.
Mwagawbi said that the government needed to make sure that there were sufficient resources to fund the implementation of the new food-security policies.
"I think there has been much talk and less action, possibly due to the lack of resources," he said. "The ministry of agriculture has not been given the prominence it deserves. I see frustration at all levels, and I think that is because they [agriculture officials] see that they cannot do much. There is a bit of apathy," he added.
"A lot of political will is needed and commitment is required. Tana River alone can actually feed the country if we use the river well," said Mwagwabi.
Since 1996, the government also has been implementing the Arid Lands Resource Management Project (ALRMP), which is aimed at improving food security in the drier regions of the country.
But even some of the project's officials acknowledge that their efforts have been concentrated more on reacting to the effects of drought than on addressing long-term food security: "Our impact is seen more when there is a breakdown [in food availability] than when things are normal," said Salim Shabani, a drought-management officer with ALRMP.
He said that ALRMP's mandate included early warning, the drafting of intervention programmes during times of drought and the preparation of long-term strategies to help communities in drought-prone districts prepare for emergencies.
"We try to build the capacity of the people so that they can take care of themselves. We develop water [sources], we encourage crop production, we support health [facilities]," said Shabani.
An ALRMP document cites as one of its success stories a project started in 1997 among the fishing communities that live along the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, a region considered one of the most food insecure in the country.
Some 7,000 people involved in the fishing industry formed groups of 20 and were provided with fishing equipment. They were also taught methods of drying and processing fish, while others learned how to make and repair boats and nets.
Annual fish output rose from 4,000 mt to 8,000 mt in five years, and under-five child malnutrition rates decreased significantly because of the abundant availability of a fish diet rich in protein, according to an ALRMP document.
Not all drought-mitigation efforts, however, are successful. According to a senior disaster-management official with an international NGO, many government-run programmes have not been effective largely because of what he called a "top-bottom" approach to planning.
"Unless you plan proactively from bottom to top, then you are not addressing the issues affecting the communities," said the official, who asked not to be named. "That is one signal I have personally from my experience with the government," he added.
"You have to plan with the community, get them to know their own risks, build their capacity and then develop a proposal jointly with them, implement the proposal with them, evaluate the project with them.
"Top-bottom bureaucracy is a problem. You may be given a project which at the end of the day is not of any significance to the reality on the ground," he added.
Once again, the issues of governance and land management, mitigation strategies and political will are crucial factors that determine whether drought will trigger a humanitarian crisis.