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Famine looms in the northern region

A severe famine is to hit northern Kenya in the next few weeks, sparking off food crisis of unprecedented proportions in the region. The impending disaster is likely to trigger migration to urban areas.
Zachary Ochieng

Experts argue that unless the government and relief organizations move in to save the situation, thousands of livestock will die and hundreds of pastoralist communities will stare starvation in the face.

In an early warning signal, the Meteorological Department is asking the people from northern Kenya- prone to drought - to brace themselves for the worst drought in as many years.

Consequently, the Meteorological Department has also put the government on notice, on the need to start stocking up and boost food supplies by seeking help from world food organizations in preparation for hard times ahead.

The arid and predominantly pastoral North Eastern province in addition to drought and insecurity due to cattle rustling and general banditry that have significantly affected the marginal farming activities in the area suffers from a deplorable lack of infrastructure. Lack of sufficient water resources for both humans and animals is a major problem in the region as the few water wells dry up immediately drought sets in.

Predominantly inhabited by the ethnic Somali, and whose residents cite lack of infrastructure as an example of deliberate neglect by the government, the region is still haunted by insecurity dating back to the early days of independence when a secessionist war raged, and more recently, spillover banditry from neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia.

With insufficient rainfall and limited water sources, subsistence farming is negligible, with the major income for food purchase being livestock. But persistent drought and livestock diseases have significantly reduced the livestock population. This, combined with lack of a structured livestock market after the demise of the Kenya Meat Commission (KMC), has eroded the purchasing power of the residents, leaving them susceptible to food deficit situations.

Early last month, the North-Eastern Provincial Commissioner Abdul Mwaserrah issued an alert saying a severe famine a result of many months of drought in the area was looming large. Mwaserrah was taking the cue from eleven Members of Parliament from North-Eastern province, who had earlier put the government on alert, warning that the region was already reeling under a severe drought.

Stanslaus Gachara, an agricultural meteorologist cautions that this year and the season that runs to 2004 has and will continue to experience one of the worst rainfall deficit years for the Arid And Semi-Arid Lands [ASALs] since the year 2000.

The coming drought is as a result of cumulative prolonged drought that has persisted since 2000 , he says. In some parts of Kenya, the drought that commenced in mid 1998 after the El Nino rains continued unabated to this year, even with recent heavy rainfall in late April and early May , he adds.

It is worth noting that after the El Nino phenomenon, the north-eastern and north-western parts of the country were severely affected by drought. The Meteorological Department s Assistant Director of forecasting Peter Ambenje observes that the rainfall data collected through the year 2000, were on average the lowest on record since 1961, which, though not known to many Kenyans, was worse than the rain shortage of 1984 .

The year 1984 will be remembered as one of the worst famine years in contemporary Kenya, in which the government was forced to import yellow maize to heavily subsidise acute staple food shortages, occasioned by failed rainfall and drought.

Ambenje observes: The drought season in the ASALs is a pattern that repeats itself after every four or so years . According to him, the north-eastern and north-western parts of the country should expect acute short rains that were supposed to have started in mid-October.

The north-eastern and north-western regions, says Ambenje, both of which consist of ASALs, exhibit annual rainfall patterns that range from as low as 230mm to 700mm .

While food shortages are always blamed on drought, experts apportion the blame to the government for its poor agricultural policies. According to Dr Hezron Nyangito, a researcher with the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research [IPAR], poor policies are to blame for the perennial food shortages.

Government records show that since independence, the country has had major nationwide food deficits in 1980/81, 1981/1982 and 1984/1985, which, though mainly caused by drought were also partly due to negative effects of poor agricultural policies , observes Nyangito.

While the problem of food shortage is almost perennial, it would appear that the government is always caught flat footed every time famine strikes. Yet the joint initiative between the government of Kenya and the United States Agency for International Development [USAID], out of which Famine Early Warning Systems [FEWS] was founded, often has enough information on the status of food supply throughout the country.

Sources in the Office of the President confirm that there are lots of data on the food situation in the country, but that the information is either ignored or government spokesmen simply deny any knowledge of a looming food crisis.

Whereas it can be acknowledged that famine has been a real threat to the Kenyan nation, it is still difficult to determine the extent of the problem because local politicians either exaggerate the problem or devalue its extent, depending on which side of the political spectrum they fall, thus obscuring the real situation.

Early 2000, several arid and semi-arid areas, notably Turkana and Wajir in the north and the eastern districts of Kitui and Mwingi faced food shortages following erratic rains in late 1999. While MPs Adan Keynan (Wajir West) and Bare Shill (Fafi) claimed that close to 100 people had died of starvation and more than 57000 needed relief assistance, the then Wajir District Commissioner Fred Musami insisted no one had died of hunger as did Sheriff Nassir, the then State Minister in charge of relief and rehabilitation.

As the inhabitants of the north-eastern and north-western regions of the country teeter on the brink of starvation, the World Food Programme [WFP] regional spokesperson Ms Laura Melo says if the government finds it necessary, WFP would assist in calling in international assistance.

Melo says the underlying poverty in the areas affected by drought is the main concern and the only long- term solution to eradicate hunger is to tackle poverty. She suggests the adoption of irrigation agriculture and diversification of sources of income to make people less vulnerable to climatic changes.

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