Isiolo — Wildfires have destroyed large tracts of grassland in northern Kenya, giving rise to fears of conflict between pastoralist communities amid an already serious food security crisis.
"In the areas we have managed to visit, the loss of vegetation is large, at least 20,000 hectares," said an officer with the Kenya Forest service in the town of Wajir, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. He said an overall assessment to establish the total level of destruction had yet to be conducted.
According to Mohamed Wako, an elder, tension is rising along the Isiolo, Garissa and Wajir borders with residents accusing each other of causing the fire.
A Wajir resident, Ibrahim Mohamed, said the fire is suspected to have been started by a cartel of traders who are hoping to secure aid agencies' and government contracts to supply fodder in the region. A fortnight ago, residents of the Habaswein area of Wajir barricaded a road to prevent trucks ferrying hay, accusing the truck owners of being behind the inferno.
The districts of Wajir North, South and West are the most affected with the fire spreading to parts of neighbouring Isiolo. "The wildfire which broke out last month but was stopped, started again two weeks ago and burnt more areas we have not visited... Extensive rangeland has been affected," the forest officer said.
"We have lost a number of livestock, mainly calves, weak and sick animals that were not able to move quickly," Adan Dualle, a Wajir resident told IRIN, adding: "Two people burnt by the fire are still at Wajir District Hospital."
Some herders have been forced to migrate further north towards Moyale with some crossing the border into Ethiopia. "We are already faced with a shortage of pasture. While we had enough just last month, I am afraid the situation will be worse if it fails to rain," said Dualle.
At least 500 families from the Biyamadow, Dadachabulla and Sarif areas have been displaced and forced to move to neighbouring districts, he added. A further 150 families had also been forced to flee from Berami Villlage to the Bute and Buna areas, according to a Wajir North District resident, Hussein Nurow.
The fire (cause unknown) is fast spreading in Isiolo's Merti and Garbatulla areas, according to officials.
"We are unable to control the fire," said Diba Golicha, chairman of the Rangelands Users Association in Merti. "The government should give us helicopters or planes to fight this fire. It's spreading fast and getting close to Marsabit [north of Isiolo]. We also want this matter be investigated."
The cause of the fire is being investigated and more resources being mobilized to ensure that it does not spread further and damage infrastructure, according to the upper eastern regional commissioner, Isaiah Nakoru.
The March-May long rains are forecast to be below-average and poorly distributed, meaning that further improvements in pastoral food security are not expected, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS NET). Food security in the area had improved after good October-December 2011 short rains regenerated pasture, increasing household milk availability and incomes.
"The majority of households will remain in either the Stressed [consumption is reduced but minimally adequate] or Crisis [significant food consumption gaps with high or above usual acute malnutrition] phase of food insecurity through June 2012," said FEWS NET.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]