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Starvation grips northern Kenya

© UNICEF video
UNICEF is providing food supplements and water to hundreds of malnourished children.

By  Zenab Bagha

NORTH EASTERN PROVINCE, Kenya, 12 January 2006 – Thousands of children are facing starvation due to deepening drought in northern Kenya. The government is distributing food rations to communities in the worst-affected areas and is appealing to the international community for urgent aid to save the lives of an estimated 2.5 million people.

Fourteen-year-old Khalil Mahamoud is one of those struggling to survive. He and his friend Adow Abdi have travelled through the night on foot to reach the nearest waterhole in the town of Tarbach in Kenya’s North Eastern Province.
Khalil says that before the drought his father, a nomadic cattle farmer, owned some 100 cows. Over the last two months, more than half of his animals have died of starvation. To save the dying herd, Khalil’s father and older brothers moved with the animals to neighbouring Somalia in search of pasture, leaving Khalil, his mother and four younger siblings behind.
“There is no food at home,” says Khalil. “We drink black tea or we boil tree bark and drink the water. The bark has a sharp taste and it makes me dizzy, but I don’t feel so hungry.”
Malnourished children are especially vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea. During a recent UNICEF-supported polio campaign, more than 80 per cent of children in the worst affected areas received vitamin A supplements to boost their immunity to disease. But with critical water shortages affecting over half a million people, poor sanitation and limited health services, conditions for children are worrying.
Farhia Ahmed, 25, her husband and their five children are part of a newly formed settlement of 450 people on the outskirts of Kotulo town in Mandera district.

The family has been surviving on dry maize provided by relatives in the town. Farhia’s 2-year-old son is visibly malnourished and has been suffering from diarrhoea. There are no toilets in the settlement and the nearest health facility is three kilometres away. “Unless it rains soon, my children will die,” she says.

But even if it rains immediately, recovery will take several months. Animal stocks have been greatly depleted and the surviving herds are weak.

Meanwhile, the lines at feeding centres for children under 5 are growing. Nooria Ibrahim, a nutritional officer at the Wajir District Hospital, says that since November 2005, six babies admitted to the hospital have died as a direct result of the drought.
“Mothers travel for days to get here. When they arrive, the child is usually severely malnourished,” she says. “We do what we can. Unfortunately, the hospital has very limited capacity. Sometimes we can not admit the children and we have to send the mother home with a bag of Plumpynut,” a peanut butter-based food supplement.

In collaboration with the Kenyan government, and through non-governmental organization partners such as Action Against Hunger and Merlin International, UNICEF is providing food supplements to hundreds of malnourished children, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers in the hardest hit districts of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera. UNICEF is also providing emergency water and sanitation and support to rapid response teams.
It is estimated that more than a million people are currently receiving assistance, but Wajir’s district’s deputy drought management officer, Osman Yusuf, says much more is needed.

“The combination of interventions - assistance from the government, NGOs and donors - are just a drop in the bucket,” he says. “They do not even begin to address the magnitude of the crisis.”




12 January 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Jane O’Brien reports on Kenya’s starving children.

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