Roadblocks and violence across much of western Kenya are putting a strain on efforts to assist hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs), according to relief workers.
"On 14 January, one of our trucks, carrying 17 tonnes of vegetable oil for IDPs, was looted in Burnt Forest [in Rift Valley Province]," Peter Smerdon, senior public information officer for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN. "Then on 28 January three of our trucks were stoned; one of the trucks was looted of some of its corn soya cargo."
Another three WFP trucks heading for the western city of Kisumu only managed to reach their destination after security escorts guided them through numerous roadblocks.
"The police are willing to help but often do not have vehicles to give us; they are also overwhelmed by the crisis," Smerdon added. "The number of trucks we can get to the IDPs has been much slower during periods of insecurity."
The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), which has a national network of thousands of staff and volunteers and has been central to the relief effort, has also experienced delays to its efforts to get aid to the most vulnerable.
"Yes we get access, but the big problem is that the barricades have slowed our relief work significantly," said Anthony Mwangi, KRCS spokesman. "Because of the violence we have had to do security assessments of every area before we can send personnel and aid there, which takes a lot of time."
Over the past fortnight, the main road from the capital, Nairobi, through the Rift Valley towns of Naivasha, Nakuru, Eldoret and up to Kisumu, has been illegally barricaded by sometimes violent youth. Security forces have thus far failed to bring these blockades to a complete halt, and transport through western Kenya has become increasingly difficult.
According to Jeanine Cooper, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kenya, "Little aid is getting through, and the boulders set up on the roads have severely slowed down the delivery of relief aid.
"IDPs may have supplies at the moment, but the continued delivery of aid to them depends on access," she said. "Another difficulty is that commercial transporters are unwilling to risk putting their trucks on the road, so even getting vehicles is a problem.
"IDPs who had not yet been located or attended to at the time Naivasha and Nakuru broke out - such as those in Transzoia and Molo - are not getting the assistance they need," Cooper added.
Photo: Keishamaza Rukikaire/IRIN
|Relief agencies are struggling to track the high volume of IDPs rapidly moving from one camp to another|
The violence is also affecting the relief effort in areas untouched by the ongoing violence - such as the chronically food insecure northeast - where food aid delivery was slowed when goods could not leave the port of Mombasa. Smerdon said a flare-up of violence in the port city could have a severe impact on the delivery of food; WFP typically feeds 2.1 million Kenyans, but since the crisis, it is now feeding more than 300,000 displaced in western Kenya and in Nairobi's shanty towns.
So high is the ethnic tension in some areas that relief agencies have resorted to deploying staff to various areas of the country based on their ethnicity.
"One agency operating in the Rift Valley town of Narok has reported that the local community has refused to accept non-Maasai staff in the camps," one humanitarian worker, who requested anonymity, said. "Non-Kenyans are welcome, but obviously it would be incredibly difficult and expensive to use non-Kenyan nationals exclusively."
The ethnicity of drivers delivering aid has also had to be taken into consideration, particularly when they work for NGOs that are not well known by locals. "We now have to consider how to protect our staff as well as the people we are supporting," the relief worker said.
Mwangi said, however, that his organisation had suffered no ethnic hostility, despite the fact that the agency had continued to be multi-ethnic wherever they operated.
"The Red Cross is understood on the ground to be non-partisan and non-political, and is very well known by most Kenyans, so our staff have not been disturbed," he said.
The pace of displacement - with an estimated 300,000 people displaced in just one month - has been so rapid and unpredictable that NGOs are struggling to accurately predict and meet the needs of people affected by the crisis.
"For example, on 30 January in Tigoni [central Kenya], we had more than 6,000 IDPs arrive at the local police station in a matter of two days," Cooper said. "The other problem is that the movement of IDPs is so fluid; one day there are several thousand IDPs in a camp and the next day they have shifted - sometimes to other camps, which we then need to find and support."
She added that the general uncertainty about ongoing mediations, potential flashpoints and the escalation of seemingly unpredictable violence made planning and coordinating the humanitarian effort even more difficult.
Although many agencies did have contingency plans and had pre-positioned food and non-food items in various potentially volatile spots across the country, few predicted the scale of the conflict or the possibility that it would last more than a few weeks.
"We are trying to analyse what has happened and how best to address the situation based on causes and likely scenarios," Cooper said. "We need to better understand and plan for the implications the crisis and its possible development could have on various sectors such as health, water and sanitation, and education."