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Humanitarian Groups Call for Investment, Infrastructure to Prevent Famine in Kenya

  • Michael Onyiego

A Turkana woman carries her child at a peace meeting in the Lobei Kraal village of Turkana district in North-western Kenya (file photo)

A Turkana woman carries her child at a peace meeting in the Lobei Kraal village of Turkana district in North-western Kenya (file photo)

As drought continues in Kenya's arid north, a coalition of humanitarian groups is urging the east African nation to combat future shortages through infrastructure development and economic reform.

It has been months since parts of northern Kenya have seen any rainfall. Though the region is accustomed to sparse conditions, alarm is beginning to set in as humanitarian organizations brace for an impending crisis. Kenya's grain reserves are running low and no rain is expected until at least April.

The lack of water and available pasture has put millions of livestock at risk, straining the resources of the pastoralist communities that rely on them for survival. The Kenyan Red Cross has launched an appeal for more than $22 million in aid to help nearly 2 million Kenyans threatened by the drought.

But on Tuesday, a coalition of humanitarian and development organizations questioned the necessity of famine and crisis during periods of little rain. Minister for Development of Northern Kenya Mohamed Elmi called Kenya's response to the current drought "unacceptable."

"Drought is a regular and predictable event," said Elmi. "With carefully planned interventions early enough in the dry cycle, well before any signs of crisis are apparent, we know that the worst impacts of drought are entirely preventable.

Despite its status as one of Africa's leading agricultural nations, Kenya is no stranger to drought. A massive dry spell from 2007 through 2009 led to a spike in food prices and threatened the country's growing economy.

But according to the Regional Learning and Advocacy Program for Dryland Communities (REGLAP) the perennial threat of famine in Kenya's north is due more to historic neglect than the region's difficult conditions.

Residents of Kenya's northern provinces are some of the country's poorest. According to REGLAP, less than 10 percent of residents in Kenya's Northeastern Province have access to safe drinking water, compared with 56 percent countrywide. Roads connecting the region with more populous areas are few and far between and many are simply dirt paths through desert.

There is also chronic underinvestment in the region's resources. Despite containing nearly 75 percent of Kenya's livestock, the country's arid regions employ less than 10 percent of the industry's workers. The government allocates about one percent of its budget to the industry annually.

REGLAP, which consists of groups such as Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE, believes that by addressing such extreme underdevelopment and underinvestment, the Kenyan government can provide resources for pastoralist communities to ride out the drought.

Meanwhile, Minister Mohamed Elmi has proposed new institutions to combat famine in its early stages and prevent serious crises. The Minister has proposed the creation of a national drought authority and fund in order to respond to drought situations without the delay of parliamentary approval.