A few months ago, cattle traders in Kiserian livestock market in Kajiado District, southwest of Nairobi, could sell a cow for up to KSh15,000 [US$200], but that has drastically changed.
"There is a lot of hunger; most pastoralists are selling their cattle at the market to buy other foodstuffs," Jane Sayena from Magadi, another town in Kajiado, said.
Four years of consecutive poor rains, experts say, have pushed communities in Kenya's eastern, northern and southern pastoral zones to the limit, finally forcing them to hurriedly sell off their herds for a pittance.
"It hurts to see the pastoralists selling their cows for as little at KSh500 [$6.50]," Sayena told IRIN. "Sometimes [they] cry... but it is better than seeing animals dying at home."
Livestock accounts for 80 percent of household income in some pastoral areas. Since the drought, the pastoralists have tried to cope by feeding their goats wet paper and slaughtering new-born calves to save lactating animals, but most animals have ended up in poor health.
Others tried to migrate to other areas, but the situation has grown worse. In northern Marsabit and Samburu, up to 20 percent of cattle and sheep have died - and the figure could rise to 50 percent if the drought continues, according to the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG).
"If I sell even one cow, the children can at least get food," said John Ole Kopito, a pastoralist from Kajiado, which borders Tanzania to the southwest.
For a month, Ole Kopito has visited the livestock market every morning to try to sell a cow. None of the six cows he kept at a stall inside the market had sold during the month.
"It is costly keeping the cows here but I cannot take them back home as there is no grass," the father of six said. At the market, he pays to keep the cows fed and watered.
Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN
|A Turkana girl waters camels from a hole dug in a dry river bed near Kenya’s border with Uganda (file photo): Even camel milk production has gone down as the drought intensifies|
Kenya's pastoral regions have experienced rainfall deficits of up to 50 percent, the KFSSG said in a 20 August assessment. Even where some rains have fallen, environmental degradation due to charcoal burning, for example, has reduced the rate at which surface water sources recharge and pastures regenerate.
Overall, food security had been affected by poor pasture, deteriorating terms of trade, near total crop failure in agro-pastoral zones and acute water shortages.
In West Pokot along the Ugandan border, for example, six goats will buy only a 90kg bag of dry maize. Nationally, maize prices have doubled due to poor yields.
Pastoralists source more than half their food from the market, so they are very susceptible to market and climatic shocks. "The most likely scenario before the onset of the next season is worsening food insecurity in the pastoral areas," KFSSG warned.
Milk availability had also fallen and as a result, malnutrition levels have risen. Traditionally, production by the hardier camels would remain the main source, but even that has declined by up to 70 percent per day.
"We are being forced to skip lunch to have supper," said Joseph Ole Ntiyoine, a resident of Magadi. "We are also substituting ugali [a maize meal] for uji [maize porridge] to make ends meet... milk is now history in my house."
Ole Ntiyoine's herd has been reduced to 60 from 118. On a typical day, his family of four has black tea for breakfast and ugali mixed with cooking fat for lunch or supper.
According to Louise Finan, regional communications officer for Concern Worldwide, most people in drought-affected regions have to rely on food aid.
Concern is providing Plumpy’nut to severely malnourished children and supporting feeding sites for severely malnourished children and pregnant and lactating mothers, Finan told IRIN.
Working with local partners, it is also providing food vouchers in Kajiado, Marsabit and Moyale. Some 1,350 households will benefit in Moyale until December, along with 500 in Marsabit. Another 1,200 in Kajiado are waiting for a second round of vouchers.
The pastoralists are also being supported by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Projects under the Emergency Response Fund have received funding for destocking and meat distribution in Isiolo and Marsabit.
According to KFSSG, sustained poor rains could undermine the very viability of pastoralist livelihoods, which have been hit by drought, migration, conflict and disease.
"People are stressed. Every time you go home, the cows have died, there's no food," Ole Ntiyoine said. "The cows are our [source of livelihood]... if the cows die, that is it."