Drought, crop failures in Kenya and Horn of Africa put millions at risk of starvation

by Emily Wilson
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NAIROBI, KENYA – Drought in the Horn of Africa is threatening the lives of more than 13 million people following a three-year grain crop failure. The region, which depends largely on maize as a food staple, has been beset by erratic weather for the past three crop seasons as a result of the El Nino and La Nina phenomenons.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, the five countries hardest hit by the drought include Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Over 90% of the total drought-affected population live in Ethiopia and Kenya. Ten million Ethiopians and 3.3 million Kenyans face starvation, as do as 750,000 people in Somalia, 335,000 in Eritrea and 150,000 in Djibouti.

In June, the Rome-based WFP launched an appeal for U.S.$88 million in food aid, primarily grain, to feed distressed families in 19 districts ravaged by what it described as Kenya's worst drought in history.

By July, Kenya's strategic food reserves had dwindled to a paltry 57,000 bags of maize. Out of the 868,680 bags of maize purchased last season, nearly 812,000 have already been distributed to drought and famine-ravaged areas. Demand for maize has risen to between 100,000 and 150,000 bags a month. Other sources say the country has only about 30,000 bags of beans in its silos and no wheat.

The Kenyan government in its annual June estimates set aside U.S.$20 million to purchase about 2.2 million bags of maize. Finance Minister Chris Okemo also announced a tax exemption on grain imports to encourage dealers to import more of the commodities.

Millions of people receiving famine relief have been on half rations for the past six months. "Getting the food is not the major problem — it is a logistical nightmare to transport the food to people in the hardest hit districts," said Brenda Barton of the WFP in Kenya, which is distributing the food aid.

It is now estimated that up to 23 million of Kenya's 28 million population will be affected by the drought.

The current drought is the third weather-related disaster in Kenya in the past three and a half years. In February 1997, 37 out of 56 districts were hit by famine after drought ravaged most areas of the country. The El Nino rains the following year caused massive flooding, food shortages and waterborne diseases. Experts now say that over 80% of Kenya's land is semi arid. In addition, the increased encroachment of agricultural land for settlement has contributed to a massive grain deficit.

The Kenyan government also is in financial doldrums following a strained relationship with international lending institutions over corruption and governance issues, resulting in its inability to buy grain for strategic use.

Regionally, the drought situation in the Horn of Africa remains grim. U.N. reports confirm that the situation in east and southern Africa will remain fragile and at some point "catastrophic."

The U.N. Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) has reported that hunger in eastern, southern and some parts of central Africa poses a serious risk to the lives of some 100 million people.

Ethiopia has sent out a plea for 1 million tonnes of grain. Erosion in the country is so bad that in an average year 2 billion tonnes of the nation's topsoil is blown away by wind. Although the drought-caused famine of 1984-85 remains well known, less serious but significant calamities occurred in 1987, 1988, 1991-92, 1993-94 and 1999.

Eritrea, too, is asking for U.S.$100 million in aid to cover the grain needs of 850,000 of its 3 million inhabitants.

In southern Africa, one report indicates that the overall prospects for cereal crops remain uncertain. Recent flooding in Mozambique destroyed more than 100,000 hectares of cultivated land where farmers were growing maize, beans, groundnuts and rice.

In Malawi, erratic and patchy rains have made prospects for the maize crop for the 1999-00 season uncertain. Although there was adequate rain in November, which favored planting activities, December was marked by prolonged dry spells that severely stressed developing crops. The overall food supply remains satisfactory following the record grain harvest this year.

The food situation in Zimbabwe, however, is unsatisfactory, attributed mainly to adverse weather, serious economic problems and agrarian unrest, which has adversely affected agricultural activities on large-scale commercial farms.

In Zambia, a government report shows that about 70% of households are unable to meet basic nutritional requirements.

Only the politically unstable countries of the Great Lakes have been spared hunger and drought. This region, which comprises Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are enjoying enough rainfall, fertile soils and a climate that guarantees continuous supply of grain even during such calamities like the genocide in Rwanda.

In Sudan, where a war has been raging since 1983, the FAO warns that about 2 million Sudanese are facing starvation, and that many more people, mainly children, are likely to die.

— Buong Arunda, Nairobi