Millions face hunger in EA due to harsh weather

Relief agencies are warning that the expected
Relief agencies are warning that the expected El Nino rains may not end the hunger situation in the region. /Joseph Kanyi 

Poor harvests due to lack of rain, worsening conflict and effects of El Nino threaten to hit millions of east African people with food shortage this year, the UN has said.

Kenya is already feeling the heat. Dwindling stocks at the national grain stores and the high prices are making it difficult for the growing population of the urban poor to buy food. This is worrying the government and relief agencies who have warned the gloomy situation is deteriorating fast.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao) says the number of people in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia depending on food assistance was likely to rise beyond 20 million in case of a drop in cereal production.

Floods and mudslides
The perilous situation could be worsened by the El Nino, which brings heavy rains towards the end of the year that produce floods and mudslides, ruining crops, killing livestock and damaging infrastructure, the FAO said.

In Kenya, the vital maize crop which accounts for 80 per cent of annual cereal production, is forecast 28 per cent below usual levels at 1.84 million tonnes.

A report by the Kenya Food Security Steering Group, a government crisis group that monitors drought situation, says about Sh27 billion is needed to feed more than 3.8 million starving people between this month and next February.

“Food assistance will be required for the next six months to fill the gap in areas where terms of trade and loss of incomes and own production have made it impossible for vulnerable poor population to access the minimum food required until end of February 2010.

Total amount required is an estimated 398,000 tonnes of assorted food commodities,” the group says.

The Steering Group operating under the Prime Minister’s Office monitors drought in the country and recommends intervention. It says about 3.8 million people are living at the risk of hunger and need daily food rations to survive.

The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB) says it has about 2.5 million bags of maize in its stores against eight million bags required to feed vulnerable communities till the end of the year.

The government has, in its 2009/2010 budget, allocated Sh2 billion for drought relief, out of which Sh1 billion will be used to develop a food subsidy scheme.

The nation’s largest relief charity, the Kenya Red Cross says 2.5 million people are most vulnerable to the drought and face death in the coming months if they do not get daily supplies of water and food. The organisation says it needs Sh600 million to buy food and supplies.

“The number of the hungry will increase. The drought situation is very acute, it’s a situation you don’t want to imagine” says Abbas Gullet, the secretary general of the Kenya Red Cross Society.

Aid agencies are demanding that the government issue new policy directive on dealing with the drought to ensure proper mitigation.

“The government has done well so far. We have our own trucks delivering water and food to the vulnerable,” says Mr James Oduor, the chairman of the Kenya Food Security Steering Group.

The latest drought situation report by the Red Cross says that while drought is the critical factor for food insecurity, the adverse effects of heightened food prices, livestock disease, and debilitating conflict at the beginning of 2008 have caused a precarious decline that may not be reversed quickly, even by above-normal rains due to El Nino.

“Food insecurity has adversely deepened especially for pastoral, agro-pastoral, agricultural marginal and urban households,” says the Red Cross report.
The hardest hit areas include Marsabit, Isiolo, Samburu, Tana River, Mwingi and Kitui districts where households have been classified as extremely food-insecure.

Last week’s death of more than 1,000 livestock at the Kenya Meat Commission’s abattoir in Athi River have complicated the drought effect on the pastoral community and farmers.

Building reserves
“We are looking at extreme poverty now. These livestock farmers or pastoral communities are not insured against such risks, they have been thrown into poverty,” says Mr Gullet.

“The food situation in our stores is not very satisfactory. We are not selling maize for commercial purposes any more, but we are holding the maize stocks for relief purposes, we hope to build on our reserves,” said Evans Wasike, the acting public relations officer at the National Cereals and Produce Board.

Last week, Oxfam, a British relief agency, said says more than four million people living in Nairobi were finding it difficult to afford food.

“It is not about hay for livestock. Its not about food for the poor but rather sound policies that will see the government support the cultivation of food and hay during good times and the storage of the same for the bad days” says Mr Gullet.