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Kenya’s pain: famine, drought, government ambivalence cripples once stable nation

Part one in a two part look at the crisis in Kenya. The next article will focus on how the drought is impacting wildlife.

Kenya was once considered one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s success stories: the country possessed a relatively stable government, a good economy, a thriving tourist industry due to a beautiful landscape and abundant wildlife. But violent protests following a disputed election in 2007 hurt the country’s reputation, and then—even worse—drought and famine struck the country this year. The government response has been lackluster, the international community has been distracted by the economic crisis, and suddenly Kenya seems no longer to be the light of East Africa, but a warning to the world about the perils of ignoring climate change, government corruption, and the global food and water shortages.

On the ground

Children are starving, cattle are dropping dead, crops are withered, lakes are empty, and still the rains haven’t come. Kenya is on the verge of a catastrophe of Biblical proportions.

Estimates put the number of hungry around 3.8 million—one in ten Kenyans, so far. However the Minister of Environment said that the number is more likely over 10 million. It is the worst drought since 2000.

Dead cattle are a common sight in some areas of Kenya now. Photos courtesy of Wildlife Direct.

Food yields for the nation have dropped by over a quarter, while food prices have gone up a staggering 130 percent. This at a time when UN World Food Program (WFP) has announced that food aid has hit a 20 year low and it needs billions more to feed the world’s hungry.

“The many less ‘mechanised’ local farmers, herdsmen and fishermen with no means to compete are the ones that suffer. They are among the 17 million in eastern Africa that according to the World Food Programme now depend on food aid for their survival,” said Oliver Nasirwa of Wetlands Internaitonal—Kenya.

No longer able to feed their families, subsistence farmers are dropping their tools, demolishing their homes, and heading towards towns and cities to settle in already overcrowded slums.

“In this village, about 50 percent of people have moved to the slum areas. This is going to increase pressure in town,” said Steven Waweru told the AFP in August, an official with Caritas that helps distribute WFP aid in the region. “We’ve not seen that for a long long time”.

Waweru says that he has seen a rise in child prostitution and labor due to the exodus of farmers. He expects crime to rise as well. “We see a very, very bad scenario in the next six months if no rains come down,” he concluded.

Since Kenya is largely dependent on hydroelectric power, the lack of rainfall has significantly decreased power across the nation, leaving many in cities, literally, in the dark. Rationing has been instituted by Kenya’s major power company, cutting power three days of the week.

Some have taken their livestock to Mount Kenya’s (top photo) slopes to seek pasture that has actually seen rain (bottom photo: vegetation on Mount Kenya’s alpine slopes) only to find their cattle dying of pneumonia due to the cold. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.

While the wealthy in Kenya have to deal with power shortages, the slums face much worse. Lack of water have forced millions in slums to wait for trucks to come with potable water every few days. Jobs, which were few and far between in the beginning, are rapidly disappearing.

The worst famine areas, though, are the pastoral lands of Northern Kenya and the coastal lands, with indigenous groups such as Masaai and the Turkana especially suffering. Communities who have built their livelihoods on livestock are witnessing entire herds drop dead from heat, dehydration, and starvation.

“We are watching in dismay in the north, as the poor people are slowly loosing their stock, to disease and drought, but too proud to admit it. Its amazing how brave they are,” Helen Douglas-Dufresne of the Milgis Trust wrote on her blog on WildlifeDirect.

Pastoralists are illegally entering wildlife parks in hopes of food and water for their dying herds. In Nairobi National Park, rotting cattle corpses are everywhere feeding lions, hyenas, and vultures. The dead animals, some infected with diseases (such as Anthrax, foot and mouth, and East Coast Fever), pose a health and environmental problem to people and wildlife, but so far most of the corpses remain in the open.

Mount Kenya has also been invaded by pastoralists looking for high-altitude—and green—pastureland. But livestock is succumbing there due to pneumonia from the chilly nights.

“The livestock still hasn’t recovered from the 2005 drought. And already we have to confront a new drought. The drought cycle is getting shorter and shorter – every three or four years instead of every 10,” a district veterinary official told AFP in August.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has said that 20 percent of children under five in pastoral regions are suffering from malnutrition. The pressure on communities has brought violence. This week 32 people, including women and children, were killed in a gunfight between pastoral groups conducting cattle raids.

Reports have come in of people eating wild fruits and cacti to survive. Others have turned to pig feed.

Where is the government?

Kenyans are accustomed to drought; in fact, the pastoral life is based on recurrent droughts. But this is different: less predictable rainy seasons, more frequent drought conditions, and a steady decline in rainfall over two decades has led many to cite climate change as the probable cause. Whether or not climate change is the direct culprit—unlike melting in the Arctic, something that is next to impossible to prove—it certainly has exacerbated the situation.

Already marginalized the Turkana are one of the worst hit by the drought and the food crisis. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.

Fingers are also being pointed to environmental mismanagement. Wetlands International has stated that commercial overexploitation of water in Kenya has made the crisis worse than it should have been. For example 100 tons of flowers are transported from Kenya by Dutch farmers every day—these are non-native flowers that are being grown on Kenya’s dwindling water supply. Even in the midst of this crisis, the flowers have not missed a day for delivery to western consumers.

Despite the issues of climate change and overconsumption of resources, many Kenyans say their government should have handled the crisis more aggressively and more rapidly. They blame officials, busy squabbling over power, for mismanagement of agriculture, the environment, the budget, and simply looking the other way as the drought spiraled.

For example, since the beginning of the year, humanitarian organizations have warned of a looming crisis for Kenya’s people, but Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki was not briefed on the severity of the food and water shortages until July, already deep into the crisis. For months officials spent more time in power struggles rather than acknowledging their country was facing disaster.

The government has not only lost the trust of the Kenyan people but of the larger international community.

“We owe it to Kenyans in distress to send resources through proven channels,” Laetitia van den Assum, the Dutch ambassador in Nairobi, told the Financial Times to explain why they were giving funds to WFP rather than Kenya’s government. “We’re not sure whether the government has the structures in place to make sure money arrives with those who need it most.”

Top: Turkana settlement near UN camp Kakuma. Around the camp, Turkana huts integrate food aid bags and trash as a building material. Bottom: Aerial view of northern Kenyan landscape taken in 2007. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.

Recently, the government has attempted to turn things around. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga spoke yesterday to donor agencies, citing the 10 million going hungry, the 150,000 dead cattle, a 40 percent drop in maize production, and loss of water in 70 percent of the country’s wells.

“The government is doing all that it can but we fully recognize that a lot more needs to be done to reach out to the populations at risk,” Odinga said.

But it may be too late, without more aid the WFP has said that it may have to scale-back food deliveries in Kenya come October.


Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in conservation and women’s right told the Associated Press: “We see carcasses of animals everywhere. You could easily see carcasses of people everywhere.”

Kenya is not alone: Somalia is also suffering from the combined crises of drought, famine, and water shortages. Officials say the country has not seen such hunger since 1991.

Yet, it is Kenya which has international observers taken aback. If Kenya—once thriving from tourism and agriculture—can be reduced to such a state what does that mean for other seemingly stable nations in the region, or in the world?

The fear is that Kenya represents the state of things to come in the face of climate change, overpopulation, political corruption, food shortages, and unsustainable resource use.

Next week: A look at the effect of Kenya’s crises on its wildlife

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