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Drought fuels economic gloom and proves we can’t plan better

By Suleiman Bashir Salah | October 13th 2021
Omar Aden Qassim stands in between carcasses of his dead livestock in Liboi sub-county in Garissa. [Courtesy]

Images of livestock carcasses, anguished faces of the elderly, and hopeless women and children left behind at home as men move around in search of water and pasture amid biting drought have pricked many Kenyans.

This is happening in the North Eastern and Eastern regions, parts of the Rift Valley, as well as the Coastal areas. The story of drought and famine is almost becoming a cliché.

Despite the existing early warning systems, drought disaster response mechanisms and coping strategies remain miserably wanting. More often, drought and famine situations degenerate into dire humanitarian crises before the government takes substantial action.

After many months without rain due to a change in climate conditions, many communities in northern Kenya are facing a harsh life coupled with life-threatening hunger and competition with animals for resources such as water and pastures.

Kenya has declared the drought that has ravaged 10 out of its 47 counties a national disaster. The drought cycle dates back to more than three decades ago.

In 1975, widespread drought affected 16,000 people; in 1977, it was 20,000 people affecte; in 1980, 40,000 people suffered the effects of drought, and in 1983/84 it hit over 200,000 people.

In 1991/92 in arid and semi-arid districts of North Eastern, the Rift Valley, Eastern and Coast provinces, 1.5 million people were affected by drought. The drought in 2008 affected 1.4 million people. In the late 2009 and early 2010, 10 million people were at risk of hunger after harvests failed due to drought.

From the aforesaid it is evident that Kenya has been hit by repeated droughts. The drought cycle has become shorter, with droughts becoming more frequent and intense due to global climate change and environmental degradation. 

Every five years

The cycle has reduced over the years, from every 10 years, down to every five years, further down to every two to three years, and currently every year is characterised by some dry spell.

For the communities living in arid and semi-arid areas of the country, drought wasn’t a new thing to cope with in earlier years. The people were used to experiencing drought every 10 or five years.

This cycle allowed farmers to recover and rebuild their livestock and crops before the next drought. This is not the case anymore. The time for recovery, for rebuilding stocks of food and livestock is becoming shorter every year.

It is also worth noting that arid lands communities in the past had devised their own drought coping and adaptation strategies. Those strategies are no longer effective enough to cope and adapt to drought.

One reason is that the drought intensity and frequencies have increased, and the people’s predicament has been compounded by political marginalisation and chronic underdevelopment, including lack of basic education, infrastructure and health, thereby greatly reducing their capacity to adapt. Thus, they are left at the mercy of the government and relief agencies.

Once again, the drought is here. As it always happens, Kenyans are again caught unprepared as a nation. Whether it is out of overall ineptitude or utter callousness is a topic for future debate. According to the Ministry for Devolution, contingency measures were put in place following drought forecasts by the Kenya Meteorological Department.

The challenge remains for the government to deliver the required food to the drought-stricken areas in time. Even though the government guarantees food security for eight months, the issue is, after that, does the government have a set contingency plan for food security given the known drought cycle?

Poor response

Certainly, there are still challenges in the implementation of drought disaster responses. Even with clearly spelled out roles of the existing institutional structures as it is outlined in the 2009 Draft National Policy for Disaster Management.

Most of the response activities are focused on immediate emergency interventions, such as water trucking and destocking. This gives little time for adequate emphasis on long-term measures. Another challenge is that the budgetary allocation for overall disaster management is far less than the reasonable amount needed.

Thus, drought disaster response activities are hampered by inadequate resources allocation. The biggest setback faced by Kenya like many other African countries, is lack of forward planning and inadequate response to crises.

On the other hand, data and relevant information (weather forecasts, drought trend analysis) is adequate and available. This is a resource that can be used in more sustainable drought management. Unless action is taken, drought will always be a disaster in waiting, which will negatively impact on any significant development that the government may undertake


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