Four million Kenyans on food aid as drought deepens

The devastating drought sweeping across Kenya is causing widespread hunger, thirst and, in the case of cattle, death. Pictures of hundreds of cow carcasses being tipped into a mass grave near Nairobi highlight the scale of the natural disaster—and the clumsy or even negligent efforts of the government to deal with it.

Aware that the drought was likely to cause pastoralists to lose significant parts of their herds, the government announced a 500-million shilling plan in August to buy weak animals from farmers for 8 000 shillings ($106) apiece. The plan provided for the animals to be transported by truck to the Kenya Meat Commission depot in Athi River near Nairobi, where they would be held, fed, and finally slaughtered, with the meat sold to recoup some of the costs.

But many of the trucks transporting the cows from as far away as north-eastern province, hundreds of kilkometres away, had insufficient water and food on board, causing large numbers of animals to die along the way.
Of those that arrived alive many soon died to due a lack of pasture in the holding bay.

The botched operation has caused anger and embarrassment among MPs, especially given that the government has been asking donors for urgent financial help in feeding the nearly ten million Kenyans who are food insecure.

“They should have slaughtered the animals at the point of origin, not used a lot of money to bring the animals to Athi River to be buried,” said John Muthotho, chairperson of the parliamentary committee on agriculture, which has accused the meat commission and the livestock ministry of incompetence.

Drought has long been a theme in Kenya, and East Africa more broadly, though the extreme dry spells appear to be hitting with more frequency. Over the past decade pastoralists have become used to marching vast distances in search of grazing, ending up in once-unlikely areas.

In Nairobi, the sight of Masai herders grazing their cows in upmarket suburbs or blocking the highway as their cattle amble across no longer raises eyebrows. In the Masai Mara game reserve busloads of tourist enter the park each day to see the wild animals roam the vast plains but at night it is the turn of the herders, who are being allowed to drive in thousands of head of cattle to graze.

The crisis is being exacerbated by high food prices, caused by poor harvests but also poor government planning that has left a large hole in the grain reserves. During the recent holidays many schools that serve lunches during term time stayed open simply so the pupils could be assured of eating one meal a day.

There is also a serious water shortage, with some neighbourhoods in Nairobi going without for weeks at a time. One reason is drought, but the destruction of key water catchment areas—in some cases with the encouragement of the authorities—has not helped.

With the electricity supply largely dependent of hydropower, low dam levels have also led to widespread power rationing. -

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