Podcast: On the ground in Kenya where drought threatens massive famine

A crowd of women wait outside a nutrition dispensary with their malnourished children at a clinic in Laqboqal, Wajir County (Credit: Charlie Ensor)

For this week’s Humanosphere podcast we’ll be speaking to Duncan Harvey, Save the Children’s country director in Kenya, about the impact of drought in the country. We’re speaking from Wajir, a border town near the Somali border in the far-east corner of Kenya – which is one of the worst affected.

With famines affecting millions across drought-affected Somalia and northern Nigeria as well as conflict-ridden South Sudan and Yemen, the drought in Kenya is receiving comparatively little international attention.

“We’ve had the fear of four famines occurring this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria,” Harvey told Humanosphere, referring to recent claims from Stephen O’Brien, a British senior official at the U.N., that the drought in the East Africa region provides one of the biggest challenges to humanitarian agencies since World War II.

Given the scale of the crisis and because the effects of the drought aren’t yet reaching the levels being seen across the border in Somalia and in South Sudan – countries with a recent record of poor governance – Duncan admits that the needs of countries more ill-equipped to deal with the drought than the Kenyan government remain.

“I think it’s quite right that countries where government is least functional are the priority for the donors in terms of the support that’s needed,” he added.

Currently it is estimated that nearly 3 million people across Kenya are in need of humanitarian assistance, up from 1.6 million last August; more than 1 million children across the country are food insecure. 

Last month, President Kenyatta declared the ongoing drought a national disaster and has appealed for international support.

Women and children in Wajir County are particularly vulnerable as male pastoralists in the community move their livestock to pasture to provide for the family, often leaving them to fend for themselves.

A pastoralist's cattle.

A pastoralist’s cattle, thirsty and hungry, but pasture and water are hard to come by. (Credit: Charlie Ensor)

One family Harvey visited in Laqboqal, a town a few hours’ drive away from Wajir town, have a difficult compromise to make: save their daughter over the long run by selling their prized livestock for money to pay for Plumpy’Nut, a peanut paste that fortifies food for children to stave off malnutrition. Doing so, however, risks losing the family’s source of income.

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“The thing that really stuck in my mind about our visit yesterday was visiting a house where we met a 1-year-old girl called Fahir who really was extremely malnourished and was moved into the clinic earlier that morning and was diagnosed as being severely acutely malnourished,” Duncan laments before adding that saving the girl required her brothers to look after the family’s livestock – their sole source of income.

The  boys, he said, had been missing for weeks on end in the hope of finding even the smallest piece of pasture to nourish their goats and camel to keep the family’s life-support system alive.

“The father was telling us that they had livestock and had entrusted his camel with his 15-year-old son; the 14-year-old and 10-year-old boys were looking after the goats and sheep. He hadn’t seen them for nearly three weeks and had been out of contact with them.”

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For generations pastoralists have moved their livestock across the region in search of pasture and water – long before political borders came into effect. If animals are to die, so will children and other vulnerable groups, Harvey says.

We are most concerned about livestock deaths then translating soon into the deaths of the most vulnerable – those being children under the age of five and pregnant and lactating mothers.

It is very likely that the April and May rains will fail in the coming weeks. With livestock already dying, it is likely that pastoralists will lose the very coping mechanisms they rely on to stave off dehydration and eventually famine.

The situation is worse than the 2011 drought, Harvey warns, adding that unless efforts are stumped up vulnerable women and children will die in large numbers.

“We’re not at the point yet where we’re seeing mortality caused by the drought in large numbers, but I think we are very close to reaching that tipping point and we want to do all that we can to prevent families from slipping into that state of crisis.”

But before we get to the chat, podcast producer Imana Gunawan and chief correspondent Tom Murphy talked about the recent headlines of the day, including stories on President Trump’s foreign aid budget, China’s elders and the drought in Somalia.

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About Author

Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com