Malnutrition hits emergency levels as Kenyans suffer the worst drought

"I had 50 goats which used to produce milk that I would feed my children, and sell some to buy food, but they have all died," says Amina.

Due to financial constraints, her children have dropped out of school. She now treks for kilometres in search of water for her family to quench their thirst and soothe their empty stomachs.

And as the drought continues with no rains in sight, her family now worries about malnutrition, which has affected her two children.

"It pains me to watch my children grow weaker each day. I am worried they may die if I do not find food," she says.

In the same neighbourhood, another mother named Ahmed and her three children aged six, three, and 16-months-old are all malnourished.

Ahmed tries desperately to breastfeed her eight-month-old baby. However, having not fed enough, the baby keeps crying as she can hardly get any milk even after suckling for several minutes.

Just a few steps from where she is sitting, Ahmed's second-born child is lying on a bed. He has not had a proper meal for days and is helpless.

"I haven't eaten any meal. I do not have food in the house," says Ahmed. "My children and I depend on plumpy nuts for food. I have not had anything to feed on after depleting our supply."

The two families represent hundreds of residents battling serious malnutrition which has badly hit children, pregnant and lactating mothers.

Data by the Ministry of Health ranks Garissa as one of the counties with the highest rate of global malnutrition at 20.2 per cent.

A Short Rains Season Assessment (SRA) national report released last week further reveals that at least 970,214 children aged six to 59 months, and 142,179 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers are currently malnourished in Kenya.

The number rose from 884,464 and 115,724 respectively reported in July 2022, a majority of whom are children and mothers.

The most affected counties are Turkana, Marsabit, Mandera, Isiolo, Garissa, Baringo, Samburu, with malnutrition levels above emergency.

Yusuf Gedi, the programme manager for Save the Children, Garissa office, says the drought in the county has been worsening, with five failed rain seasons.

Subsequent failed rainfall seasons have worsened the situation, with over 55 per cent of the population in dire need of food assistance and other interventions. In Garissa, the most hit sub-counties include Balambala, Lakidera and Fafy.

According to a 2023 projection, Garissa has a population of 927,031, of which 509,900 are in drought classification phase three and above. Statistics show at least 66,509 are malnourished.

"Children under the age of five years, pregnant women and lactating mothers are battling malnutrition, and need quick intervention," says Gedi.

Gedi says the pastoral community used to depend on livestock for milk, but the animals were wiped out by drought, and the few surviving have been rendered unproductive because they trek long distances in search of water and pasture.

Save the Children and other partners are responding in an integrated programme through various initiatives such as providing unconditional cash transfers to affected families, supplying water and animal feeds, and strengthening capacities at the Ministry of Health to address malnutrition.

There are a total of 131 outreach sites for nutrition screening. Children, pregnant and lactating mothers who are found to be malnourished are put on Ready to Use Therapeutic food (RUTF).

RUTF is rich in energy and contains large amounts of lipids and carbohydrates.

At Hirbay village, one of the nutrition outreach sites, mothers queue for plumpy nuts to feed their babies. Plumpy nuts are high-protein therapeutic food given to malnourished children.

Malnutrition is also soaring among pregnant and lactating mothers, posing severe health risks and well-being. Out of 23 pregnant and lactating mothers, at least 17 are malnourished, whereas of 67 children screened, 30 battle malnutrition.

"Everyone is experiencing famine. We survive by a whisker, and I fear if the situation continues, we might die," says 65-year-old Muktar Ali, a local whose four children are battling malnutrition.

"It is sad that the drought has reduced me into a beggar, depending on donated plumpy nuts for survival of my children. It hurts to watch my children cry of hunger, yet I have nothing to feed them," says Ali.

Ali had a herd of 500 goats, 50 camels and 20 cows, which has been swept out by the drought.

Fahim Gure, a Public Health Officer at Balambala sub-county says that malnutrition levels have hit alarming levels. He explains that malnutrition among expectant women affects development of the foetus, and poses a risk of sepsis and death.

Data at Saka Health Centre in Balambala sub-county also reveals increased cases of malnutrition, with at least 111 children in the age brackets of six months and five years being treated of malnutrition in the past one month.

Children treated with severe acute malnutrition were 33, whereas 42 pregnant and lactating mothers are on nutrition clinic.

The population facing acute food insecurity and consequently requiring humanitarian assistance increased significantly from 3.5 million in July 2022 to the current 4.4 million.

The situation is projected to further worsen during the long rains season, owing to the forecast of below normal rains.

This will further exacerbate drought conditions with the population facing acute food insecurity expected to hit 5.4 million by June 2023.

"Out of the 4.4 million people, approximately 3.6 million are in crisis, while the remaining 800,000 are in emergency," reads a section of the report.

Counties of Turkana, Marsabit, Mandera, Wajir and Garissa have the highest proportions, with 55 per cent of the population in crisis level and above.

Further, the report notes that the population in emergency may increase further to approximately 1.2 million people, with Turkana, Marsabit, Mandera, Wajir and Garissa likely to get into emergency, if it does not rain.

Gedi says due to adverse effects of climate change, there is need for the government to come up with lasting solutions.

Among long-term solutions being addressed by Save the Children in partnership with other organisations include initiating dry land farming and supplying of water for irrigation.

"Though locals in the country are pastoralists, we need to focus on climate change adaptation measures," says Gedi. "We are doing a number of interventions, but it is not enough to reach more than 55 per cent of the population that suffers drought," he added.