The Cycle of Drought in Kenya a Looming Humanitarian Crisis

2011-01-18

Damaris E. Mateche, Environmental Security Programme, ISS Nairobi

Images of livestock carcasses, anguished faces of the elderly, despaired women and children left behind at home as the men move in search of water and pasture while the drought scourge bites…these are the images Kenyan have been seeing in the local media. This is happening in the North Eastern and Eastern regions, parts of the Rift Valley, as well as the Coastal areas of Kenya. The story of drought and famine is almost becoming a cliché in Kenya. Despite the existing drought early warning systems in the country, drought disaster response mechanisms and coping strategies remain miserably wanting. More often, drought and famine situations degenerate into dire humanitarian crises before the government takes substantial action.

The drought cycle in Kenya dates back to more than three decades ago. In 1975, widespread drought affected 16 000 people, in 1977  it was 20 000 people affected, in 1980, 40 000 people suffered the effects of drought, and in 1983/84 it hit over 200 000 people.  In 1991/92 in Arid and Semi-Arid Districts of North Eastern Kenya, the Rift Valley, Eastern and Coastal Provinces, 1.5 million people were affected by drought.  It was reported that widespread drought affected 1.4 million people in 1995/96 and in 1999/2000, famine affected close to 4.4 million people. In 2004, 3 million people were in dire need of relief aid for eight months from August2004-March 2005 due towidespread drought. The drought in 2008 affected 1.4 million people. In the late 2009 and early 2010, 10 million people were at risk of hunger after harvests failed due to drought.

 From the aforesaid it is evident that Kenya has been hit by repeated droughts.  The drought cycle has become shorter, with droughts becoming more frequent and intense due to global climate change and environmental degradation.  The cycle has reduced over the years, from every ten years, down to every five years, further down to every 2-3 years, and currently every year is characterized by some dry spell. For the communities living in arid and semi arid areas of the country, drought wasn’t a new thing to cope with in earlier years. The people were used to experiencing drought every 10 years or 5 years. This cycle allowed farmers to recover and rebuild their livestock and crops before the next drought. This is not the case anymore. The time for recovery, for rebuilding stocks of food and livestock is becoming shorter every year.

It is also worth noting that the arid lands communities in the past had devised their own drought coping and adaptation strategies. Those strategies are no longer effective enough to cope and adapt to drought. One reason is that the drought intensity and frequencies have increased and the people’s predicament has been compounded by political marginalization and chronic underdevelopment, including lack of basic education, infrastructure and health, thereby greatly reducing their capacity to adapt. Thus, they are left at the mercy of the government and relief agencies.

Once again the drought is here. As it always happens, Kenyans are again caught unprepared as a nation. Whether it is out of overall ineptitude or utter callousness is a topic for future debate. This time around, however, unlike the drought between 2007-2008 when the whole country was in dire need for food, the Ministry of Agriculture has assured the country that there are food stocks to last eight months.
According to the Crisis Response Centre of the Ministry for Special Programmes, we are informed that contingency measures were put in place following drought forecasts by the Kenya Meteorological Department in 2010. The challenge remains for the government to deliver the required food to the drought-stricken areas in time. Even though the government guarantees food security for eight months, the issue is, after that, does the government have a set contingency plan for food security given the known drought cycle?

Food aside, with drought, conflict over water and pastures is likely to continue in the arid areas. This is fuelled by proliferation of small arms into the country from neighboring countries. According to the Arid Lands Resource Management Project Coordinator, Mr. Molu Sora, fears of conflict are already high as desperate herders move away from their traditional grazing lands, converging and congesting the few areas that still have water and pasture.  As if that is not enough, with water scarcity, chances of cholera outbreaks are quite high.

Livestock, a main source of livelihood for pastoralist communities has not been spared either. The Ministry of Livestock Development recently announced that more than 150,000 camels, 16 million goats and 6 million cattle risk death as harsh weather conditions ravage most parts of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands. The livestock purchase off-take programme was a good initiative by the government, both as an emergency intervention and as a coping strategy. However, with alarming livestock death reports already, this approach might not rescue the situation as it is now.  The purchase should have begun immediately the signs of drought start manifesting instead of waiting for livestock death reports before action is taken.  In the current situation, the animals to be sold off are either too weak to reach market centers or are not healthy enough to fetch good market prices. For instance, it is reported in the local dailies that the price of a full-grown bull has gone down to Ksh. 3,000 from Ksh. 15,000 six months ago. The Kenya Livestock Marketing Council estimates that farmers will incur losses of upto Ksh. 229 billion from the drought.

Certainly, there are still challenges in the implementation of drought disaster responses. Even with clearly spelled out roles of the existing institutional structures as it is outlined in the 2009 Draft National Policy for Disaster Management. Most of the response activities are focused on immediate emergency interventions, such as water trucking and destocking. This gives little time for adequate emphasis on long-term measures. Another challenge is that the budgetary allocation for overall disaster management is far less than the reasonable amount needed. Thus, drought disaster response activities are hampered by inadequate resources allocation. The biggest setback faced by Kenya like many other African countries, is lack of forward planning and inadequate response to crises. On the other hand, data and relevant information (weather forecasts, drought trend analysis) is adequate and available. This is a resource that can be used in more sustainable drought management. Unless action is taken, drought will always be a disaster in waiting which will negatively impact on any significant development that the Kenyan government may undertake.

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