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Millions faced with famine as drought dims food output

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Goats in Samburu lack areas to graze. The land is dry and there is no pasture. Photo/JENNIFER MUIRURI

Goats in Samburu lack areas to graze. The land is dry and there is no pasture. Photo/JENNIFER MUIRURI 

By George Omondi

Posted  Monday, January 17  2011 at  00:00
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The government faces a fresh challenge of reorganising its spending priorities to raise money for feeding up to two million people facing starvation in the ravaging drought, which relief agencies predict could worsen in the coming months.

The Cabinet last week sent out a team of permanent secretaries on a fact-finding mission aimed at gathering data on the country’s food outlook as relief agencies stepped up an appeal for money to cater for five million people believed to be in need of help.

The Special Programmes ministry whose docket includes emergencies estimates that five million people have inadequate food, while the Red Cross and UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) say between 1.8 million 1.2 million face starvation.

“The actual numbers could come out from this week when both the government team and international relief agencies conclude their assessments. Humanitarian work must begin straightaway to avoid the 2005/6 – like situation,” Kenya Red Cross Society secretary- general Abbas Gullet said last week.

Kenya Meteorological Department’s latest weather forecast predicts that most parts of the country will face drought up to April.

The department first issued the alert in July last year but little was done in the form of measures to mitigate the impact of the drought on vulnerable communities such as pastoralists and the poor in rural and urban areas.

The society is appealing for Sh1.5 billion to support its humanitarian activities in the next four months, saying the La Nina drought bears the hallmarks of the 2005/6 dry spell that claimed the lives of people and livestock in different parts of the country.

Mr Gullet said the money raised would mainly assist pastoralists by stepping up the school feeding programme, providing food and water to livestock and buying animals from pastoralists.

The appeal came just weeks after the UN launched another Sh42 billion ($ 525 million) fund under its Emergency Humanitarian Response Plan last month to sustain relief services to refugees and vulnerable Kenyans in the face of the worsening food deficit.

The success of the appeal, however, could be hampered by the government’s reluctance to declare the food crisis a national disaster yet in the belief that the situation would be manageable. That could change once the assessment team returns from the field.

The Cabinet has directed its committee on food security to enhance distribution systems and to chart an efficient livestock off-take and fertiliser provision chain.

“We need to activate early warning systems and emergency response mechanisms because more and more emergencies are on the way due to rapid climate change,” said Mr Alexander Matheou, the East Africa’s representative of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies

In 2009, a prolonged drought pushed the country to the brink of food riots when it exposed 10 million Kenyans to starvation, forcing the government to declare it a national disaster and launch an international appeal for Sh37 billion emergency fund.

Experts said as long as the government fails to make necessary investments that could assist the country to withstand dry weather, its options are limited to either seeking international funds or redirecting its development budgets to cover emergency budgets.

“Droughts are now structural issues in this region. They have become frequent and severe and can only be resolved by structural investment not emergency responses,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Co-ordinator Aeneas Chuma said at the press briefing last week.

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