Millions faced with famine as drought dims food output

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 

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.

The World Bank estimates that a total of Sh24 billion was lost by the government through maize import tax waivers and flour subsidies of the 2009 drought.

The current emergency response plans are likely to benefit from improved long season’s harvests of cereal in Rift Valley, Central, Western and Nyanza regions, which have pushed prices down in the last eight months.

FAO projects that last season’s long-rains contributed 2.75 million tonnes (30 million 90-kg bags) of maize which is more than the five-year average and about 30 per cent higher than previous period.

“The bumper production means the government will temporarily be cushioned from volatile international commodity prices when it starts buying cereals from surplus regions to feed millions of people currently facing hunger in some parts of the country,” said Mr Gullet.

Conflicts among pastoralists over water and pasture, however, need urgent solutions, he said.

Weekly commodity price statistics prepared by the agriculture ministry indicates that the ongoing harvest has pulled down the open air-market prices for dry maize to between Sh1,300 to Sh2,025.

According to FAO, the declining trend in prices for maize was partly influenced by the Government’s recent decision to revise producer prices paid by the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), especially to mop up the 2009/10 short-rains aflatoxin-infected maize crop from the market.

The government has been very slow in restocking its strategic grain reserves, only releasing Sh500 million early this month to buy maize from farmers at Sh1,800 a bag.

The money is only enough to sustain national consumption for three days since the country consumes 2.8 million bags per month.

“We are negotiating fair prices with relief agencies such as the World Food Programme and other bulk buyers to take advantage of our warehouse receipts instead of buying directly from farmers,” according to the National Cereals and Produce Board managing director Gideon Misoi.