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Emergency Response

By Julie Mwabe

Effects of Kenyan drought- like never seen before.

Kitui, Kenya, 5 September 2009 - Driving through Eastern Kenya's Kitui district as the hot midday sun lifts temperatures to over 30 degrees centigrade, pools of water glisten in the distance, laying between the leaf-less trees and shrubs, with the hills of Kitui peering through the horizon.

But these are not pools. There is no water here. By a cruel irony, this parched land taunts its thirsty and hungry people with distant images- mirages- of shimmering oases in the distance. According to Kitui's District Commissioner, Daniel Chepcher, “ The district has not received a single drop of rain in over two years and we have been forced to rely on the water from the riverbed where we have to dig deep to find it” he informed.

The locals who are now suffering without water, whose maize crops and animals- their main food and livelihood source- are dying, know better to be caught out by the illusion of water. “The maize crop that we hoped to harvest has failed for a fourth time” Chepcher informs. “We have no food and we are hungry. The predicted El-nino rains remain our only hope” he adds.

The customary long rains failed across Kenya, leaving majority of the population without water. As the foliage dies, the animals have being dying for want of food. And as animals die, the people here may not be too far behind.

The Kenya Meteorological Department says this year's drought is the worst since 1996. Forecasts are grim, with continued deficient rainfall expected for most parts of the country even though a wave of El-Nino rains is expected to hit the country in October. What would have been previously considered a natural disaster remains the country's only hope as there has been on overwhelming drop in water capacity in the Kenya's largest water reservoirs, leading to power rations throughout the country.

The Kenyan government has declared a state of emergency saying 10 million people may face hunger and starvation after a poor harvest, crop failure, a lack of rain and rising food prices leading to a chronic state of food dependence which this latest drought has exacerbated.

Hospitals in Kitui district are struggling to provide treatment to the huge number of undernourished children who stream through their doors everyday. Mary Mwanthi, 25,  has had to walk 15 kilometres to a nearby health centre to receive UNICEF sponsored UNIMIX to feed her 8 month old baby whose clinic card indicates that she is 4 kilograms below her recommended body weight. Mary has 3 other children at home under the age of 5 who are depending on her to feed them and despair is evident across this young mothers face. “ I had 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 due to the prolonged drought , “I watch as my children wither away and it breaks my heart watching them starve. I feel very guilty” she tearfully adds.

There has also been a noticeable school drop out rate in the 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 alone, the current school feeding programme is only able to cover 20,000 out of the 96,000 school going children in the district which is less than 25% of the targeted children.

UNICEF has been coordinating emergency actions throughout the country working with the governments ministries of health, water and education, and concentrating efforts on different projects such as scaling up targeted feeding of malnourished children through more therapeutic and supplementary feeding programmes across the country. UNICEF has also focussed on maintaining school enrolment and retention by providing schools with food rations, water supplies and boosting mobilization activities on hygiene and sanitation.

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