Deputy Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Beth Bechdol visited Kenya on a fact finding mission and the visit was enlightening an eye opener. Ms Bechdol came face to face with the drought situation in Northern Kenya and saw how families had been affected by the situation. Bechdol who is based in Rome, was visiting Kenya to assess and create awareness on drought and food situation in the Horn of Africa.
She noted that Kenya, especially in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (Asals) may be on the verge of an impending fourth wave of drought and urgent action is needed. She shares with The Smart Harvest on the drought and hunger situation and challenge of climate change and how FAO plans to address the same.
You have been in the country for a few days. Fill us in on your mission in Kenya?
This is actually my second field mission in the two years I have been with FAO. The Covid-19 pandemic came with lockdowns and shutdowns of countries and that made it difficult for us to get first hand understanding and exposure of what was happening on the ground. But now with more vaccinations and opening of economies, we can move around and connect with communities that we work with. It has been a trip full of lessons and eye openers. Unfortunately, the trip has been quite short, but I am pleased that we managed to have important conversations with key actors.
What are some of the highlights of the conversations?
We were able to do a couple of things. One, we got to celebrate some successful collaborations between key partners especially with the national Government of Kenya and county administration. We were able to put up a united front to battle challenges like desert locust that have cause untold damage on farms leading to economic losses. For the past several years the locusts were stubborn and persistent but today the reports that we get on infestations and swarms is that they are now at zero level in Kenya. This is absolutely something worth celebrating as it is a victory for farmers, agriculturalists and pastoralists.
What other challenges need urgent attention of all actors?
Now that desert locusts are behind us, now we are reeling from the third wave of intense drought, that is especially affecting Northern Kenya, Asals and pastoralists communities. I am afraid that we may be staring at an impending fourth wave of drought and urgent action is needed to arrest the problem.
All of these issues are linked to food insecurity and hunger. We need to work together to bring solutions and support the base agricultural production and livelihoods in rural communities. Truth is climate shocks are here to stay, and they are happening all around the world in different forms like cyclones, flash floods, which are common in Kenya.
What activities are being undertaken to cushion the vulnerable communities from the climate shocks?
For us, we see a role as FAO in two important areas. One, making sure that we provide the right kind of emergency support to farmers and pastoralists, whether that be animal feed and nutritional supplements, supporting water management and veterinary services.
To address this challenge, we are working closely with the national and county government on the cash transfer programme to ensure it is a success. All these actions are intended to support families and communities in affected areas.
Since drought and hunger are now a periodic problem, what action is needed?
This is a key priority for us as FAO. As a global humanitarian body, we will continue to work closely with Kenya to ensure that the people who are most affected get the urgent help that they need.
The strategy is to get better at anticipating and finding ways to build early warning systems. It will be good if we can predict a challenge and address it before it manifests into an emergency.
It is extremely critical that we identify the trends early enough, for instance the weather patterns. In the case of desert locusts, swarm and breeding patterns in all of these places, data, geospatial platforms, digital tools, partnerships that bring in more engagement and more information are critical in the fight.
What is FAO doing to build resilience in Agricultural systems?
Quite a lot I must say. Building resilience to agricultural systems is exactly the direction we should be going. For us as FAO, we have indeed build this concept of resiliency in development into our own organisational strategic framework, which is our 10-year plan for how FAO engages with countries and those in need.
Are we winning the war on hunger and food insecurity?
The fight is not over yet, but we have made significant progress so far. We have indeed had some very fruitful conversations with State actors and other key partners in the UN family. We have to accept that this is not an issue that FAO can tackle alone.
This is going to take multi stakeholder effort to really bring about the long term change. We also have had some very interesting discussions about ways the private sector, partner businesses and enterprises, can and should play a role in this longer term solution that needs to be found.
Is there a global strategy to dealing with the challenge?
One concrete strategy in solving this long term challenge is making sure that the donor community, resource partners and those who are providing the much needed funding are on the page and are sharing their data and action plans.
Much as each of us has their own strategy and planning, we need to take on long-term investment as opposed to simply responding to the short term emergencies.
So while there is no concrete strategy in place yet on how we can tackle this together, I’m very optimistic that with the conversations we have had in the last few days, all of the pieces of this long term puzzle are beginning to come together.
Time is of essence and we need to act fast and now. The evidence is clear, if we are going to turn back the rising tide of acute hunger, we need to start investing a lot more in the fight to help our people who include women who rely on agriculture for their food and daily income.