Garissa — With severe drought conditions recorded in 11 counties and more than a million people in danger of going hungry, the Kenyan government has begun taking steps to head off a looming famine.
The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) placed the government on alert, focusing on counties in the eastern, northern and coastal regions.
NDMA Board Chairperson Agnes Ndetei told Sabahi the warning was sounded after monitoring and assessment of the situation revealed that 11 counties -- Marsabit, Turkana, Tana River, Garissa, Mandera, Wajir, Isiolo, West Pokot, Baringo, Samburu and Lamu -- are dealing with drought conditions.
"Some of these counties are already reeling from acute water and pasture shortage," she said, adding that 13 other counties are also at risk of drought if the long rainy seasons anticipated in April do not materialise. "We have asked the government to immediately begin implementing mitigation measures for the communities."
"An 8-year-old girl died of hunger and a family slaughtered and ate a dog in Nayanae-emeyan village in Turkana on January 17th. These unfortunate incidents are a wakeup call for speedy intervention to cushion the communities," Ndetei said. "Rapid and proactive response is crucial to prevent similar cases."
According to Turkana North parliamentarian Christopher Nakuleu, eight people have died because of hunger since December, including four children and two adult women.
"Dozens of malnourished children are being attended to at the various hospitals in Turkana," he told Sabahi.
In 2011, more than 40 people died in Turkana County alone, he said.
Cabinet Secretary for Devolution and Planning Ann Waiguru said more than a million people across Kenya are facing hunger because of the prevailing drought.
She said the government has taken all necessary measures to handle the situation, including providing food relief to Turkana and Marsabit counties, where the need is dire. The World Food Programme is providing food assistance for nearly 1 million people, she said.
"We are working with county authorities that have been identified to avert any deaths," Waiguru told Sabahi.
The government will take steps to ensure there will not be a repeat of 2011, Waiguru said, adding that the national and county governments' long-term plans include supporting irrigation and water projects in drought-prone regions.
Government prepares to buy livestock
In addition, the government has directed the Kenya Meat Commission to prioritise buying livestock from the affected areas to help mitigate any losses farmers may sustain, Livestock Principal Secretary Khadijah Kassachoon told Sabahi.
To that end, pastoralists should start selling some of their livestock to maintain manageable stocks and avert massive losses, she said, adding that the government will identify buying centres where farmers can bring their livestock to sell to the government.
The Chairman of Kenya Livestock Marketing Council in Garissa Ahmed Hassan said if the government sets a good price, farmers would be more inclined to sell some of their livestock to maintain a manageable herd, the size of which depends on each farmer's capacity and severity of the drought.
"There are farmers who may have 200 and may decide not to sell to the government," he told Sabahi. "During the 2011 drought, the government was buying at less than half the price an animal is required to fetch. That discouraged farmers from selling to the government and as a result the animals died."
"We understand that some of the farmers will be reluctant to sell their coveted animals because they associate a large herd of animals as a wealth status. But it will be a huge gamble for the owners to hold on to the animals if the rains fail," Kassachoon said, adding that the government has not yet set its buying price.
"We need to get the animals now, when their health and physical condition is still good, so as to reduce the pressure on the receding pasture and water in the affected areas," she said.
Emergency drought funds to be released
Treasury Secretary Henry Rotich told Sabahi that the government will soon release about 3 billion shillings ($35 million) in emergency drought funds to help affected counties.
"The money was set aside from the national revenue to tackle emergencies such as drought," he told Sabahi.
Before the release of the funds, authorities in Wajir County said they were working with limited resources to cushion residents from the drought.
Wajir County water executive Yussuf Abdi Gedi said the county government has been transporting water to 150 settlements.
"The situation is [so] bad that some of the residents have gone to neighbouring Ethiopia in search of water and pasture," he told Sabahi. "The water that is being taken to them is provided free of charge because most cannot afford to buy the commodity."
He said three boreholes are already in use in Wajir and 10 more are scheduled to be operational in March.