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Declare drought an emergency now or we die, governor pleads

North Eastern
 Mandera Governor Mohamed Adan Khalif. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Mandera Governor Mohamed Adan Khalif has spent the past few weeks knocking on doors to seek relief aid for the humanitarian crisis afflicting his people.

Khalif has met national government officials and development partners, explaining the dire situation facing residents of Mandera and those from the Northern region as a whole, occasioned by the region’s worst drought in 40 years.

He plans to meet more people for much-needed humanitarian assistance to augment the mitigation efforts his government has put in place. The border county recently experienced another failed rain season, the fifth in a row. Weather forecasts do not offer much hope.

A week ago, the meteorological department warned of depressed long rains in most of the country, signalling a sixth failed rain season. The North Eastern region will not be spared – dreadful news in the face of dried-up rivers, dead livestock and, more critical, dying people.

“It is really disturbing,” Khalif tells me of the sight of starving children, who alongside women and the aged, are the most affected by the ongoing drought. “If you see some of these cases, you would lose all appetite for three days.”

We are seated at his office in Nairobi, where he spends days raising awareness on the drought that has put more than half a million Mandera residents – 60 per cent of the population – at risk of starvation.

Khalif struggles to remember the exact date he assumed the office of governor, courtesy of the “pressing issues” he has had to confront months into his tenure. “You would think it’s an important date that one should never forget.”

The most drastic of the issues has been the drought, which the governor says has claimed 85 to 90 per cent of the county’s livestock. The drought situation is currently in the alarm phase, with the governor convinced that it has hit the emergency threshold given that it has led to a 90 per cent loss of the residents’ livelihood.

“I don’t understand why the national government has not declared it an emergency,” says Khalif, who believes that declaring the drought an emergency would unlock more government and international relief aid and save lives.

“The situation is worse now than it was four months ago. If we don’t upscale the interventions, more lives will be lost. We are not talking about livestock anymore. People will die.”

He says his government has been strained by the relief programmes implemented since he assumed office, a spillover of the mitigation efforts put in place by the previous regime.

Among the measures, Khalif says he has taken includes distributing relief food, which he had to do two months into office.

“In November, we did our first phase of relief distribution, distributing about 750 metric tonnes of rice and 180,000 litres of cooking oil to about 60,000 households across the 30 wards,” he says, adding that the county has embarked on distributing water to 310 sites across the county through some 47 water bowsers.

“The entire surface water is completely gone. Dawa River is completely dried-up and now we have to rely on the groundwater in the few boreholes in Mandera,” Khalif goes on, adding that his residents have to dig up to eight metres deep into barren land to access the scarce water resource.

“We are really exhausted. We have been battling this drought for the last three years and the resources are limited. We depend on the goodwill of donors.” 

The prolonged drought has had adverse effects on other critical sectors such as health and education. Like much of North Eastern, Mandera is prone to cholera outbreaks, owing to water scarcity, and has been struck by high rates of school dropouts.

In the absence of livestock, parents are unable to pay their children’s school fees, a situation that prompted the governor to issue an Sh350 million bursary to all school-going children in Mandera.

“We realised that if we don’t do that the enrolment of our schools would drop to 30 per cent because parents sell their livestock to pay their children’s fees,” an initiative that he says has helped double school enrolment.

Additionally, the county government launched a school-feeding programme targeting Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) children and lower primary pupils, which sees them provided with porridge.

There are the insecurity challenges resulting from the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabaab, whose threat Khalif says has reduced owing to a communal admonishment of the organisation.

Coming into office last year, Khalif knew that he would face similar challenges as his predecessor Ali Roba, the current Mandera senator. As the former Speaker of the county’s assembly and Mandera’s former mayor, Khalif had overseen debates that sought interventions against drought.

His experience as the Mandera Township councillor also forced him to interact with residents who constantly sought his help in securing a meal. He had seen it all before growing up the son of a councillor as residents in need of help would troop to their house.

Khalif had prepared for the task ahead. He plans to transform the education sector and open more doors of opportunity for the younger generation. His target is to improve the transition from primary to secondary education.

But his primary focus is improving ECDE and technical vocational training and the county boss has set up a task force to help his agenda.

“The traditional way of doing things (pastoralism) in Mandera will not work because of climate change… the best thing we can give our children is education,” he says, adding that he also wants to bridge the teacher-pupil gap by training more local teachers.

Khalif says he also plans to improve the county’s primary healthcare by devolving health services further and reach the 80 per cent of the population that resides in rural areas.

And he also plans to make residents self-sufficient by improving their livelihood and finding a lasting solution to the perennial water scarcity and setting up a functional water network.

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