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Experts warn the worst is yet to come as number of starving Kenyans rise

President William Ruto flags off distribution of Relief food and launch of livestock take-off program at Nakaalei, Kalapata ward, Turkana South on Saturday, November 5, 2022. [PCS]

The number of starving Kenyans has risen sharply to over 4.35 million with policymakers warning that the worst is yet to come.

Drought has exposed Kenya’s continued reliance on rain-fed agriculture after erratic rains hurt food production, leaving millions starving.

President William Ruto, his deputy Rigathi Gachagua, Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi and other Cabinet members were spread yesterday across the country where they launched relief food distribution in areas in dire need of food.

Ruto was in Turkana where he called on development partners to step in and help.

But it is Gachagua who captured the magnitude of the problem from Kajiado where he launched a Sh16 billion international appeal for drought mitigation that includes relief food support and livestock off-take.

National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) data shows that 4.5 million people are malnourished. The figure is expected to rise in the coming days in the absence of large-scale intervention.

NDMA Chief Executive Hared Hassan said the worsening household food security situation has resulted in increased malnutrition across counties.

According to Mr Hassan, 942,000 children below the age of five and 134,000 pregnant or lactating women require treatment for acute malnutrition. This is an increase from the 884,464 children and 115,725 pregnant women reported last month.

"The forecast for November short rains season indicates below average performance and thus calls for concerted anticipatory action by key drought risk management players," Hassan said in a statement published on the Authority website.

"The current pasture and browse condition is not expected to last long due to the high concentration of livestock in the dry season grazing areas."

Areas which have enjoyed relatively stable food supplies such as Central and Coast are joining the arid and semi-arid areas in appealing for food aid as dry farmlands and dwindling harvests sink home.

The situation has seen government turn to fundraising to help the starving Kenyans, marking what has become a ritual when severe drought hits the country.

NDMA has highlighted Northern Kenya, Central, Coast and Eastern among the regions highly affected by the drought.

The counties most affected by drought include Meru, Kilifi, Murang’a, Nyeri, Garissa, Isiolo, Kajiado, Kitui, Mandera, Turkana, Wajir and Kilifi, which require urgent intervention.

Others are Taita Taveta, Lamu, Makueni, Tana River, Kitui, Kwale, Makueni, Meru Tharaka Nithi, Baringo, Narok, Marsabit, Laikipia, Samburu and West Pokot.

"The drought situation continues to worsen in 20 of the 23 Arid and Semi-Arid (Asal) counties, with three more counties sliding into the alarm phase of drought," the report said.

"The drought situation in Laikipia, Tana River and Tharaka Nithi counties has progressed to an alarm phase."

In the majority of the counties, cattle and goat prices remained stable compared to the previous month, albeit below the long-term average.

This has undermined the terms of trade, which measure the price of a goat against that of maize, further exacerbating food insecurity.

Turkana Governor Jeremiah Lomorukai, who has appealed to United Nations (UN) agencies to support the ongoing emergency response initiatives over the biting drought in the region, said the situation is quickly worsening.

"The Global Acute Malnutrition levels in the county stand at 34.8 per cent due to the biting drought, higher than recommended WHO levels. We have appealed to the President to declare the drought a national emergency because close to 98 per cent of our population is affected," Lomorukai said.

NDMA, which is expected to release a new status report next week, said that more counties are also sliding into the alarm stage, which is exposing more communities to conflict.

The situation has been worsened by the rising food prices that have sent Kenya’s cost of living to a 65-month high of 9.6 per cent in October, staying above the government’s targeted upper limit of 7.5 per cent for the fourth month running.

"The decline in livestock prices, the increase in cereal prices, and the general increase in prices of most consumer goods continue to undermine the purchasing power of households, exacerbating food insecurity," the NDMA said.

Stakeholders are calling for urgent action to save lives, saying that the situation is moving from worse to the grave after weather forecasts showed there would be little rain in October, November, and December period.

January does not look any better because the onset of long rains has for the past few years delayed and hurt agricultural production.

This is likely to leave more people starving, leading to insecurity since communities will start fighting over resources.

"Most counties reported livestock body condition as fair-to-poor, except Kilifi and Kwale counties, which reported good body condition for cattle and goats," the state report said.

Kenya is among the Horn of Africa countries affected by the current severe drought in the region that has left millions across the country, Somalia, and Ethiopia facing acute food insecurity and malnutrition.

NDMA said with the worsening drought trend, the number of people in need of urgent food assistance in Kenya is projected to increase.

Hassan said the government, with support from UN agencies and more than 70 non-state actors, is scaling up targeted responses, including water, livestock, agriculture, health and nutrition, education, security and social protection.

During the last financial year, the government disbursed Sh4 billion to beneficiaries under the Hunger Safety Net Programme, which was implemented by NDMA, and a further Sh3.45 billion for emergency relief.

Another Sh950 million was spent on livestock offtake, while Sh446 million was used in water response activities.

The government also disbursed over Sh3.23 billion under the Inua Jamii cash transfer programme in the Asals, while the Ministry of Education spent Sh2.2 billion on the school feeding programme.