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Perennial famine is policy failure not natural episode

By Irungu Houghton | March 23rd 2019

When does drought become food stress, food insecurity or a famine? When should a state declare alarm, alert or emergency? In the face of stories and images of starving families, citizens have little time for famine terminology and scales. Starvation is deeply political and very public. Intense drought, starving communities and the reported deaths of up to twenty people in Baringo and Turkana challenges our leadership very directly.

The right to food is a crucial pillar of human dignity. Article 43 clearly states that all Kenyans have the right “to be free from hunger and have adequate food of acceptable quality.” Article 21 obligates national and county Governments to ensure our capabilities to access food is not blocked and where food cannot be accessed, provide food. Death by starvation is, therefore, a constitutional violation.

According to the experts, starvation looms for up to 1.1 million people across 13 counties and Sh34 billion is required to avert a national disaster. The problem is not the absence of food as the Deputy President and Devolution and Agriculture Cabinet Secretary have argued, it is, its distribution. Uasin Gishu and Trans-Nzoia have a glut of maize that have been unable to be absorbed either by the Government’s grain stores or the market. 

We must ask the right questions. Why did we not act to avoid the suffering in Turkana and Baringo today? Being caught unawares convinces no-one any more. Kenyan famine cycles have shortened from 20 to 12 to two years in two generations. Rainfall is down 15 per cent. The country is 1.4 degrees centigrade warmer since the 1980s and the agriculture growing season is growing shorter, perhaps by as much as 40 per cent. Food insecurity seems to occur as regularly as Lent or Ramadhan now.

Media analysts were quick to juxtapose the Water Cabinet Secretary’s comments this week with those on April 2018 when he predicted this drought. Seven months later, the Met Department and the Drought Management Agency raised the risk of failed rains for a country that still relies on rainfall for food security and livelihoods. Despite all this, residents of Baringo and Turkana have been left to survive life at 40 degrees centigrade, eat wild berries and walk more than 8km in search of water pans that have dried up. Without water supplies and food, severe malnutrition is causing weakened immune systems, illness and death.

Irritating comments

The public anger directed at DP and Cabinet Secretaries of Agriculture, Water and Devolution and Asals was provoked by two irritating comments. Firstly, that no-one had died and secondly, even if they had (sic), it was from poor health not starvation. Journalists, relief-workers and area chiefs have painstakingly been recording incidents and names of who has died or is dying. Arguing that the elderly and children are dying because of low immunity seems to be a useless technical point in the face of such misery and bereavement. Most who are familiar with famines know that death by starvation is inevitable.

If climatic change, failed rains, inadequate investment in small-holders and poor distribution systems are the constant factors, what gives this famine a distinctive moment? Were the early warning alarm bells not followed by political and policy action? Were the national and county Governments too cash-strapped by our austerity moment to react? Was the attention of State Officials too pre-occupied by the interests they share with the tenderpreneur cartels?

Corruption and impunity have trapped the state like a pair of scissors. The money lost in the maize, fertiliser, irrigation and dams scandals is what we need to keep people alive and re-boot their livelihoods now. Kenya is a signatory to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2 to end hunger by 2030. If we do not take human rights and leadership integrity seriously, a zero hunger Kenya is not possible.

No amount of Kenya Red Cross public appeals, social media hashtags and questions in an empty Parliament will make a difference if we do not fix this decisively. Criminalising whistle-blowers doesn’t help either. Famines are catastrophic policyfailures not natural phenomena. Addressing them as such gives us the opportunity to avert them in future. All ears will be on the President to see if he provides a decisive way forward in the April 4 State of the Nation address.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]

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