EASTERN AND SOUTHERN AFRICA feature story for Kenya

© UNICEF Kenya/2009

A health worker holds the feet of a severely malnourished child, Abdi, 2, at the UNICEF-supported Wajir District Hospital. Poor harvests, high food prices and persistent drought have contributed to high malnutrition rates.


KITUI DISTRICT, Kenya, 5 September 2009 - Driving through eastern Kenya's Kitui District, the hot midday sun raises temperatures to over 30 degrees centigrade.  Pools of water glisten in the distance between the leafless trees and shrubs.

But these are not pools.  There is no water here.  By a cruel irony, this parched land taunts its thirsty and hungry people with a mirage of shimmering oases in the distance.  Kitui District Commissioner Daniel Chepcher says, “In over two years, this district has not received a single drop of rain and we have been forced to rely on the water from the river bed where we have to dig really deep to find it.”

The anticipated long rains have failed across Kenya, leaving the majority of the population without water. While the foliage is withering, animals are dying in droves from lack of food. “The maize crop that we hoped to harvest has failed for a fourth time,” continues Mr. Chepcher. “We have no food and we are hungry.”

According to the Kenya Meteorological Department, the drought in 2009 is the worst since 1996. The forecast is grim, with the shortfall of rain expected to continue across most parts of the country.  Due to the overwhelming drop in water capacity in Kenya's largest water reservoirs, power rationing has been introduced throughout the country.

With an estimated 10 million of its people facing hunger and starvation after a poor harvest, the Government of Kenya has declared a state of emergency.  The steady rise in food prices has resulted in a chronic state of food insecurity. 

Malnutrition is also taking a heavy toll. In recent months, hospitals in the drought-affected area of Kitui District are receiving increased numbers of malnourished children.  Mary Mwanthi, 25, has walked 15 kilometres to a health centre for her eight-month-old daughter to receive special therapeutic food provided by UNICEF.  Her infant’s clinic card indicates that she is already four kilograms below her recommended body weight. 

At home, Mary has three other children under the age of five who are depending on her to feed them.  Despair is evident across the young mother’s face. “I used to have a little farm where I planted maize and other vegetables and after harvesting it, I was able to feed my family comfortably,” she says.  “But this prolonged drought has taken everything. I have to watch as my children waste away and it breaks my heart to see them starve. I feel very guilty,” Mary adds tearfully.

There has also been a noticeable increase in the school drop-out rate in Kitui District due to the drought.  As schools can no longer afford the high prices of food to keep the school feeding programmes operational, children are being advised to remain at home.  In neighbouring Mwingi District, the current school feeding programme is only able to cover 20,000 out of the 96,000 school-going children – or less than 25 per cent of target number of children.