In most areas, pasture, water and food supplies are totally depleted, writes Nick Guttmann.
When I met Mamo Toro last month, on a parched dusty road in northern Kenya, the 19-year-old herder hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in 24 hours.
My colleagues and I from Christian Aid came across him during a long, dry drive in North Horr, a sub-county of Marsabit County.
Mamo cut a desolate figure: he was standing vigil over a young female camel in the last throes of life. The animal lay prone, exhausted and starving, in what had once been lush grazing land. Now, there wasn’t a blade of grass or a leaf in sight.
It was making a pitiful, guttural, death rattle: a sound that’s hard to forget.
Mamo told us his story: he and his fellow herdsmen had set out from the nearby town of Balesa with 42 camels, trekking 70kms in search of water.
While the rest of the group had continued on, taking Mamo’s camels with them, he had remained with his dying camel overnight, going without food or water, in the vain hope that it would revive.
But it would be dead within a matter of hours. The future was looking incredibly bleak for Mamo. This was his second camel to die in 24 hours.
We gave him some food and water, and a lift up the road. Nevertheless, he faced a six-hour walk to find his friends.
This sad situation is becoming commonplace across northern Kenya, where drought has left 2.4 million people desperately short of food.
In the 37 years since I first travelled to Kenya, I’ve never seen it so dry. Marsabit is one of the hardest hit regions: it hasn’t rained in most parts of the county since October 2015.
Everywhere we went, we heard the same message: this was the worst drought in living memory.
Abudo Hurri, 85 and Tesso Yattani Abudo, 65, with their grandson in Qorqa Diqa village in Kenya’s Marsabit County. They struggle to find enough food to eat each day. Credit: Dub Guyo
I have lost count of how many carcasses I saw as we drove hundreds of miles: camels, sheep, goats, donkey and cattle. I saw goats eating dung amongst the carcasses: there was nothing else for them. The stench of dead animals was hard to ignore.
In most areas, pasture, water and food supplies are totally depleted. People like Mamo are being forced to trek for miles to find grazing areas and water. All the while, their animals grow ever weaker, dying in unprecedented numbers.
Some people we spoke to had lost everything, and nearly everyone had lost more than 80 per cent of their sheep and goats. They didn’t hold out much hope of their remaining animals surviving, especially when they have to trek, at times, over 40 miles to waterpoints.
Communities in Marsabit County, northern Kenya, have suffered widespread loss of animals in the drought, due to lack of food and water. Credit: Nick Guttmann
It’s hard to overstate the importance of animals to the pastoralist communities of northern Kenya. Livestock is how they make a living, feed their families, sustain themselves.
Now, the market has collapsed: people can no longer sell their animals, so don’t have money to buy food or water. Without the milk from animals, children grow more malnourished.
One man I met, 80-year-old Dalach Anole, told me he had never known it to be so bad. He used to own 600 sheep and goats. Now, only 40 remain. He worries they’ll die even if it rains, as it will take a few weeks for the pasture to regenerate, and potentially years before he himself recovers fully.
This bleak outlook is echoed across Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia, where millions are going hungry every day.
In Kenya, local have been meeting urgent needs across North Horr, for instance by tankering water and providing cash support to households. While this is vital to those on the brink of starvation, much more is needed.
But the reality is that climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of droughts, bringing erratic rainfall, and making it much harder for people like Mamo and Dalach to anticipate weather patterns – and plan accordingly.
Aside from conflicts and crises, water scarcity and climate change are the most fundamental challenges to ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition, according to the FAO.
That’s why, if we want to avert future catastrophes of this scale, we need to invest in working with communities to help them manage and reduce the risk of disasters before they happen. We must help them adapt to their changing climate and build their resilience to these ever-frequent droughts. This will help save lives, livelihoods and enable faster recovery.
I have seen the difference this can make. In the Hurri Hills in North Horr, communities have defended themselves from some of the worst impacts of the drought. In one village I visited, the community had made and stored hay, built seven underground tanks to preserve water, and sold some of their animals early on, when the drought was less severe.
‘Without the resilience programme we would never have survived,’ village chief Roba Aboubo told me, referring to a project funded by Christian Aid and delivered by our local partner, Anglican Development Services.
Statements like these show why it’s vital that the UK and other governments commit to increasing investment in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and resilience, up from 6 per cent of humanitarian aid to a target of 10 per cent. These resources should be used in partnership with local people.
But even with the best resilience programme, humanitarian assistance – albeit on a slightly lower level – will still be needed in the places I have visited. The scale and intensity of the crisis is so great. That’s why I’m grateful that the UK public has given so generously, via the Disasters Emergency Committee, to help the millions of people on the brink of survival.
Nick Guttmann is Head of Humanitarian for Christian Aid. He lived in Kenya between 1995 and 1998. Christian Aid is running an appeal for the East Africa Food Crisis.