Several hundred thousand people in northeastern Kenya are just a step away from famine and the next rains expected in September/October will not be sufficient to replenish the water table, warns a senior weather official.
Mohamed Ibrahim, the headmaster of Gither village public boarding school for pastoralist children, rushed to the UN vehicle - it is the first he has seen in many months. "I just heard you were here, I have only a few days of water and food left to feed the children. Can you help us?
"Our school has the capacity to house only 240 children but I have 150 more children - their parents just dumped the children at the school and left for Ethiopia in search of pasture."
Ibrahim said he had been rationing water. "I give each child three litres of water every two days - the water is for bathing, washing and drinking. I know it sounds terrible, but that is how it is."
UN guidelines recommend at least 20 to 50 litres of water per person per day.
Ibrahim explains he has had to share the school's water rations with the villagers. Gither in Mandera West district last received a day's rainfall in October 2010.
"There have been occasions when they had no water to clean mothers after delivery," Ibrahim said.
The school in the neighbouring village, Dandu, has already run out of food and water. Yakub Malim Ali, the assistant chief, said, "Everyone is sharing their relief food from the village."
A drop of tea
Across Mandera and Wajir - two of the districts identified by the UN, with other parts of the Horn of Africa, as just one step away from famine on a five-point scale - villagers live on sweet tea for most of the month, if and when they have water. The relief food lasts on average 10 days. Desperate mothers say their children had their last solid meal weeks ago.
Water and food supplies are erratic because vehicles constantly break down or get stuck on the dirt tracks that link the villages to the towns in the two underdeveloped districts.
Villagers have to pay to fuel the government-hired trucks to bring in the water. "We don't know for how long people will be able to sustain the payments for the fuel - but it cannot go on for the next three months," said a desperate villager in Gither. He appealed to the visiting members of Oxfam and Vétérinaires Sans Frontières-Suisse (VSF-Suisse) to dig a borehole.
But the NGOs point out that digging a borehole is a long process, which could take well over three months, while the people needed water urgently. Trucking water is the only viable option.
A village of 80 households, Bolowle in Mandera West, came up with a plan: they ran a destocking programme, collecting about KSh100 (US$1.10) for the slaughter of each animal, to buy water.
"We collected Ksh6,600 [$73]. We use the money from these savings to pay for the fuel," Ahmad Abdi, an elder, said. They charge KSh10 per 20 litres of the water. “This is also used towards paying for the fuel.
"If we don’t have any water all my people will die; we don't have enough food as it is," said Abdi. The village gets relief food once in 70 days, he said. They have received aid only twice since the rains failed again in March/April.
Women sell wild fruit and goat’s milk in the market to bring home the only money the families have seen in the past three months. "We will run out of our savings soon as well – we still have three more months to go before the end of the dry season," Abdi said.
But the situation could deteriorate further. Peter Ambenje, deputy head of the Meteorological Department, said: "People have this misconception that if it rains in September-October, the situation could improve. This is not the case.
"The rain we receive during that period is very little. Many of the drought-affected areas are dealing with three or even four failed seasons - we will need at least three good rainy seasons to revive the pastureland and replenish the water sources."
But for pastoralists in Wajir and Mandera, who in some instances have not seen good rains since 2009, even a day's rain has the power to change their world. "As soon as people hear from the networks [mobile phones] that it has rained somewhere, they can travel hundreds of kilometres to seek the water and the revived pasture," said Abdi.
When his village had a day's rain, "it was like the whole world descended on us - they came and finished the pasture and the water within days".
Lack of resources
District officials admit they do not have the resources to provide free water. "Our finances only cover the costs of maintenance - you have seen the state of the roads," says Jacob Matipei, district commissioner for Mandera West. They are considering boreholes in the long term; he has only two water tankers catering for the entire district with several hundred thousand people.
Thomas Bett, district officer for Wajir East, talks of using solar and wind power to draw water for irrigation. "Lots of people have dropped out of pastoralism for good and there is nothing else for them to do in the settlements in the desert," he said. "If we had some water - we could perhaps set up small community gardens for them to grow vegetables or some staples to feed themselves."
There is surprisingly little evidence of long-term interventions, despite past droughts. There are a few pilot schemes to subsidize fuel to draw water from boreholes in Wajir and a few wind and solar energy pilot programmes to generate power for irrigation.
Officials admit the districts are underdeveloped. "The cost of building roads alone is billions - we don't have the resources," Matipei said.
But Abiba Ebrahim from Gither village wonders if there is a "will to help - is someone going to help us? Ramadan starts soon [1 August] maybe we can manage without food but not without water."