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Why is northern Kenya’s hunger crisis being ignored?


A dried up river bed. So far 30,000 drought-refugees have crossed the border into Uganda. Matt and Kim Rudge under a Creative Commons Licence

In Turkana County, northern Kenya, 90,000 people are slowly starving. Rivers and wells began drying up two months ago, leading to a severe drought that is affecting some 400,000 local residents. Livestock have perished and crops have failed. The situation has become so desperate that residents are being forced to eat their pets.

But Felix Kiptarus Koskei, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, believes that it is simply a matter of time before the crisis is over. ‘I would like to appeal to Kenyans that the situation in Turkana County may be alarming but the government has put in place measures to overcome it. We are human and we are trying to provide what is necessary now to avoid further deaths,’ he said.

However the humanitarian disaster appears to worsening. Kenyans blame the government for not doing enough. Food packages distributed by officials do not meet local need and 30,000 drought-refugees have so far crossed the border into Uganda, with more look set to follow.

Turkana County has long been neglected by successive national governments to the extent that residents do not recognize themselves as Kenyan citizens. In fact, many see themselves as foreigners or refugees in their own country.

During the past 50 years, local government has done little better. There has been hardly any progress towards implementing sustainable development programmes. Road networks and communication infrastructure is dismal.

Turkana County lies in an Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL) area. These areas have some of the lowest school enrolment rates in the country. Pupils are issued with laptops when there is no electricity and learn under trees due to a shortage of classrooms.

Health facilities are few and far between, meaning that locals have to walk for several kilometres to the nearest centre. Worse still, opening times are sporadic and medication is in short supply.

The population in Turkana County is growing but there is limited capacity in the area to sustain large numbers of people while opportunities for employment in other areas of the country are limited.

The recent discovery of oil in the area that may improve the prospects of some. But oil is no replacement for water.

There are calls for the government, headed up by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, to implement a National Drought Contingency Fund that would ensure drought emergencies are responded to quickly and early on.

Strategic planning will be needed, along with the recognition that food aid is a short term and partial fix. And steps should be taken to negotiate peace between different ethnic groups in the ASAL areas, who clash over ever-dwindling resources.

In the long term, according to Erick Kimani, Communication Officer for Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) UN Kenya, there must be sustained investment in drought stricken areas for communities to build up resilience and adapt to climate change.

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