We suffer from a range of disasters as a country: flooding, fire tragedies, terrorism, corruption, diseases and epidemics, and drought – these reduce our quality of life, destroy our infrastructure, disrupt our economy, and cause a diversion of resources intended for other things. They also ensure that we remain underdeveloped.
Our country is particularly drought prone. Only 20% of our country receives high and regular rainfall. The other 80% is classified as Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL), where annual rainfall is low, so drought is a regular thing. Currently, four counties (Isiolo, Garissa, Kajiado and Tana River) are classified in the alarm phase according to the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) in February 2018. Ten counties have moved into the alert drought phase up from six in December, with most counties reporting a worsening trend. Only four out of the 23 ASAL counties (which make up a majority of Kenya’s land mass) recorded a stable trend.
The Kenya Red Cross also said that about 3.4 million people concentrated in 10 ASAL counties are facing food insecurity, and possibly famine, as a result of prolonged drought and failed rainfall. As a result, they are seeking KES 1.044 billion to fund their 2018 drought response and recovery program which is projected to reach 1,373,294 people.
In many ASAL areas, the October-November-December 2017 seasonal rainfall started late, had poor temporal and spatial distribution, was below average in total amount and stopped earlier than usual. This has affected the major harvest that was expected as a result of these rains in February 2018. In almost all counties, the vegetation situation was worse in January than it was in December. This may mean that most people, including subsistence farmers, will be relying on markets for their food. This scarcity and high demand will lead to much higher food prices.
Considering that the drought hits pastoral areas the hardest, their livestock will be malnourished, given the unavailability of water and forage. They won’t be able to fetch their usual prices. This means that pastoralists, too, will need food aid. It also means higher meat prices, because much of the livestock will die, as we have already began to see.
Drought is a weather condition. An extended period of dryness. We cannot prevent it, though we can predict it and prepare. There are three kinds of drought. Meteorological drought, which is when rainfall falls below a certain level that would lead scientists to consider it a drought. This could be seasonal. There is hydrological drought, which is often caused by meteorological drought. This is when water body levels fall below a certain amount. Finally, there is agricultural drought, which is when there is a significant reduction in crop yield, such that it may fall to a certain level considered to be a drought. This is also usually caused by the first two types of droughts. Kenya experiences all three types.
Famine on the other hand, is an economic condition. It is man made, because it is caused by a failure to plan. A failure to manage food supplies. For famine to occur, there has to be unavailability of food. Which does not necessarily need to happen when a drought occurs, because it is not like drought comes out of nowhere. It is not a surprise. Famine leads to hunger and starvation. A drought need not lead to famine, but in Kenya, it always does. We have a long history of famine and drought.
In 1997, we had a drought that affected the lives of 2 million people. In 2000, Kenya had its worst drought in 37 years. It affected 4 million people, who all needed food aid. In 2004, the long rains (normally expected between March and June) failed, leaving 2.3 million people in the need of aid. In 2005, famine was declared a national catastrophe, affecting 2.5 million people in Northern Kenya. In 2010 and 2011, we had our worst drought in 60 years. Across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, 13.3 million people were affected. In 2014, we had a drought that affected 1.6 million people. In 2015, approximately 1.1 million people needed food aid because of rainfall shortages.
In 2017, over 2.7 million people were in need of food aid according to the NDMA. This number represents around 20% of the population in pastoral areas, and 18% in marginal agricultural areas. Maize yields fell by 50%, beans by 40 to 50%, and sorghum by 30% as compared to 2015. Some places experienced as much as a 70% drop in crop yields, and livestock was selling for as much as 25% less than 2015 prices. Because the February 2018 estimate is that more people will need food aid (at least 700,000 more people), we can project that the situation may be even worse this year.
Drought is one of the reasons we are unable to achieve the sustainable development goals – such as the ones related to attainment of food security, poverty eradication, and promotion of environmental sustainability. It makes no sense that we continue to rely on rainfall in our agricultural sector, knowing that our country is mostly arid and semi-arid. Whenever our rains fail, we have drought, followed by famine, which causes hunger and starvation. This continues to happen yet agriculture is a key driver for our social and economic development. This continues to happen even when we have an early warning system, and a drought management authority.
This is baffling. Most water for human consumption and other uses is derived from rivers whose recharge depends on rainfall. Our grid is also largely powered by hydroelectricity, so drought also leads to power shortages. In the year 2000, Kenya Power lost USD 20 million, and the national GDP contracted by 0.3%, because of drought. Drought also accelerates the process of desertification and biodiversity loss. People lose their jobs when industries shut down as resources get depleted, children drop out of school because their parents can’t afford to pay their fees because of the economic impact of drought, as well as the suspension of school feeding programmes when there is a famine.
The funds the Red Cross is seeking will go to nutrition, cash transfers, food vouchers, rehabilitation of watering points and animal slaughter. Which is odd, because this is the sort of thing a country with a government should be able to do for itself. While we cannot let people starve, if we continue to fundraise from our already overtaxed pockets to cover things we already pay taxes for, aren’t we encouraging our government to continue with its corruption?
Drought is an all-round disaster, and it is sad that we continue to take it lightly. Or government, and not the Red Cross, should be able to have enough food relief for affected people with special food formulas for the most affected, such as children, the elderly and mothers. They should have in place resources for human disease control and treatment, as well as animal feed and supplements. They should have enough water reserves for both humans and livestock, and allocate cash for all this because drought is not a surprise. They should plan for livestock disease control, shelter for these animals, debt relief for their owners, destocking, restocking, distribution of seed, the list is long.
We also need to have the government championing practices that will help the average Kenyan in such times. For example, promotion of water harvesting and storage (which is illegal in Nairobi), training water user associations, planning for new water sources, deepening wells, removing silt from water pans, and planning future interventions. They also need to promote animal production and drought resistant crops, improve extension services, and develop our cereal banks. They need to ensure we have enough pasture & water for livestock, building up, strengthen networks between herders, develop livestock markets, conserve and protect pasture.
They also need to establish a common approach to disease control for livestock, vaccinate, deworm, and maintain cattle dips. The crops they promote should be drought resistant, early maturing crops and indigenous plants that require little water. They also need to promote agro-forestry for fruits, fuel, fodder and medicine, and have proper pest and disease control in place. This is their responsibility.
They may claim that many things “begin with us” as citizens, but famine definitely begins with them.