In Kenya, severe drought threatens to leave 4 million food insecure

Children in northern Kenya are impacted in a crisis fast becoming one of hunger, thirst and disease

By Dan Oloo
Dabo Boru, 21, with her two-year-old daughter
UNICEF Kenya/2017/Oloo
31 March 2017

Children in northern Kenya are severely impacted by a drought that has plagued the region since late 2016. Learn how UNICEF is helping families treat malnutrition, thirst and disease.

MOYALE, Kenya, 31 March 2017 – Dust mercilessly cuts its way through the air, meandering across the pathways of Badanrero Village, Kenya, located 100 km from the border town of Moyale near Ethiopia. The terrain is flat and desolate, with nothing but dried up shrubs for miles.

As the dirt whirl picks up momentum, small children and goats begin scurrying for shelter in tiny, semi-permanent stick and grass-thatched structures where they live, for now. The majority of the inhabitants who reside in this arid region of northern Kenya are nomadic pastoralist families.

Dabo Boru, 21, is a mother of three who trekked with her family to Badanrero from her home village of Ambato, 38 km away. They were forced to move here in order to save their cattle from dying of thirst and hunger due to drought.

“I brought all these cows here in the hope that they will survive. I even bought for them fodder and water but 18 of them have already died and we are only left with 3,” says Dabo, as she stares sadly at the decomposing carcasses of her livestock, lying just a few metres from her hut. 

UNICEF Kenya/2017/Oloo

Hiliki Diba, 27, feeds one of her nine-month-old twins with Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food. The food was prescribed for her children at the nearby UNICEF-supported dispensary in Badanrero Village, Moyale, Kenya.

A crisis of hunger, thirst and disease

In late 2016 when the rains failed, a severe drought hit the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya, affecting 2.7 million people. Marsabit county, where Moyale is located, is one of the hardest hit areas. Thousands of children are food insecure and in dire need of treatment for severe malnutrition.

“Hunger is a major problem here, children don’t have milk and we don’t have food and water. Where we fetch water from is very far and it is dirty,” says Dabo. “We are really suffering because of this drought.”

Most natural open water sources in Moyale have dried up, putting immense pressure on the few available boreholes and dwindling water pans. Households like Dabo’s now have to walk up to 10 to 15 km to find water.

“My husband has been away from home for two weeks now, looking for pasture for our remaining animals. I am now left alone to protect my children and make sure that they eat, which is very difficult without the animals that provide the milk,” says Dabo.

People here are at a higher risk of falling sick because they are malnourished and lack good sanitation. At the nearby Badanrero Dispensary, Hiliki Diba, 27, has brought her 9-month-old twins to be treated for malnutrition and acute watery diarrhoea.

Hiliki says, “I have been taught how to breastfeed exclusively for six months, but having twins and the drought have made it very difficult for me to breastfeed them. First I don’t produce enough milk because I don’t eat enough because there is no food. I am also weak and I fall sick often.”

UNICEF Kenya/2017/Oloo

A child enjoys a packet of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). The RUTF is a made of peanut butter, milk powder and a combination of vitamins and minerals to treat malnourished children.

UNICEF response

According to UNICEF Representative in Kenya Werner Schultink, because of the drought there will be at least 100,000 children under 5 years who will need treatment for severe malnutrition. Over 180,000 children are no longer going to school because there is no water or no school feeding programmes. "Imagine the impact this will have on their future lives and that of their community if it persists,” says Schultink.

“UNICEF has put all the requirements in place to treat these children,” says Schultink. “We are also working with county governments on the repair of broken down boreholes to increase access to safe water.”

As for Hiliki, her twin daughters were screened and admitted to the outpatient therapeutic nutrition treatment programme. The girls were treated at the UNICEF-supported dispensary using Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), a peanut-based paste that is fortified with nutrients and essential minerals, alongside vitamin A supplementation.

They were also treated for diarrhoea and given soap, a bucket and water treatment tablets to use at home. Mothers coming to the clinic are also taught basic home hygiene and nutrition practices in order to safeguard their health and that of their children during the drought.

“The forecast for the necessary rains in the coming months is not promising and therefore the fear is that the drought can only get worse,” says Under Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien. "It now requires the international community to step up, because we [the United Nations] are already here. There is need to back this successive track record of saving lives and protecting civilians, who through no fault of their own, have found themselves caught up in the drought.”

According to the Kenya Government, which has appealed for humanitarian assistance, the number of food insecure people will rise to 4 million in April 2017 if the situation is left unchecked.

>> Learn more about the humanitarian needs of children in Kenya