Fighting a Famine; Northeastern Kenya
April 22nd, 2010 was the last time Sahal H. Abdi, Kenya Red Cross Regional Manager for North Eastern Kenya, can recall a singledrop of rain touching down on the scorched earth in Garissa, Kenya. That was over 16 months ago.
Since then, the riverbeds have emptied, leaving nothing but dusty scars on the landscape. Carcasses of goats, cows, and camels litter the side of the 370 km dirt highway between Garissa and Wajir, two of the largest towns in the region.
Northeastern Kenya, an area often forgotten about except in times of severe crisis such as the recent flood of tens of thousands of starving Somali refugees into Dadaab refugee camp, is experiencing one of the worst droughts in over 60 years. Yet the lack of rain is only part of the problem.
Wolfgang Fengler, the World Bank’s lead economist for Kenya, said recently in an interview with Reuters that “This crisis is manmade…. droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.”
This crisis is indeed manmade. Although this hot, dry and sparsely populated region of Kenya skirting a boarder with Somalia is no stranger to drought, the situation appears to be getting worse each year. Global climate change is leading to more unpredictable and unreliable seasonal rains, straining the already limited resources in the region. The mostly nomadic, pastoralist population inhabiting the area continues to lead an increasingly unsustainable way of life, and the lack of government investment and infrastructure in the region provides few alternatives when they do attempt to settle.
Yet there is one good thing about a manmade crisis; there are plenty of opportunities for manmade solutions. In Wajir and Garissa, both hard-hit by this 16 month drought, the Kenya Red Cross has for years been implementing several short and long-term solutions to fight off impending famine in the region, and encourage more sustainable livelihoods for pastoralists given the changing conditions.
The short-term programs from the Kenya Red Cross, such as Water Trucking (sending water trucks to fill large tanks in more remote communities), School Feeding Programs, and Greenhouse projects, are unsustainable but essential “emergency measures” at this point. Unfortunately, these “emergency measures” must be taken year after year, simply to keep people alive.
The long-term programs are much more successful. Along the Tana River in Garissa, a Red Cross program, the Tana River Drought Recovery Program has helped over 1,600 former pastoralist families establish farms and irrigation systems along the river. These families are now earning a steady income, and bringing fresh tomatoes, bananas, mangos and other fruits and vegetables into the local markets.
Kenya Red Cross employees estimate that only 10% of rivers capacity is actually being harnessed, leaving vast opportunities for greater agricultural production- and employment- in the region. Boosting the number of local farmers in the area would provide new incomes for people, help boost the local economy, and potentially reduce the cost of food in the local market.
Ultimately, the most desirable long-term solutions will come from better infrastructure (such as paved roads), investment in new agricultural techniques, more deep water wells, and a global attempt to try and curb climate change. Communities in this region will continue pastoralist livelihoods, roaming the land in search of food and water for their livestock, until those resources can be found no more, like today. No one can and should force them to change their lifestyle. But governments, NGOs, and others can at least provide viable alternatives and better solutions for when the rivers and pastures run dry, making it easier for them to adapt in tough times.