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Turkana reels from severe drought

Young Turkana girls carry traditional brooms to a local market for sale in northern Kenya Kenneth Odiwuor/IRIN
Young Turkana girls carry traditional brooms to a local market for sale in northern Kenya
Battling the scorching sun and rising dust in northern Kenya’s Turkana region, 11-year-old Ekiru* carries handmade brooms on her head to the nearby market. She has skipped school because she has to sell the brooms to buy food for her family.

"I am going to the market and when I sell these brooms, I will buy food so that we can eat," she said. "We haven't had food for three days now and we just drink water and sleep. If somebody can buy these brooms, I will buy fish and we can eat."

A worsening drought is continuing to ravage many parts of northern Kenya. The UN estimates that at least 3.5 million Kenyans are food insecure.

In Turkana, as in other areas in the predominantly pastoralist north, families are selling their surviving livestock to buy increasingly expensive food. “I have to sell my goat because just like me it has nothing to eat; I don't have money to feed my family and only that goat, which is very thin, is my wealth. Now I have turned it [the goat] into money to buy food," Johannas Nanoru, a father of seven, told IRIN.

The government has declared the current drought a national disaster and relief agencies are stepping in with emergency food aid, but this has done little to alleviate the suffering of families in the larger Turkana area.

"We have food aid programmes that target extremely vulnerable families but we can't cover everybody and many more still need the food aid but they aren't receiving it. Many will still die of hunger unless more food aid comes in," an aid worker, who requested anonymity, said.

Turkana has experienced malnutrition rates of up to 37.4 percent; the highest recorded in 20 years and more than double the UN World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 percent.

Aid workers say there has been an increase in admissions of severely malnourished people to stabilization centres, with children younger than five most affected.

"We have seen higher cases of severely wasted children aged under five," Theresa Fovo, Turkana field coordinator with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told IRIN.

''The truth is that the government has not been as proactive in arresting the recurrent food insecurity in arid regions such as Turkana...''
Longer-term solutions

The IRC and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) are running a food-for-work programme in Turkana in a bid to create a long-term solution to recurrent food and water shortages. Participants engage in activities such as the construction of water points that can be used for irrigation; in turn they receive food.

At present, WFP has 265,000 food aid and food-for-work beneficiaries in Turkana. The school-feeding programme is reaching up to 179,000 pupils.

"When you engage residents in activities that create some sustainability and give them food in the process, that creates a more secure future than relying purely on just perennially giving food aid," Fovo said.

According to an agriculture economics lecturer at Kenyatta University, Julius Nabwire, the Turkana and other communities in Kenya's north cannot always rely on food aid. “It is unsustainable and the government must create irrigation schemes and utilize those large swathes of land to produce food to feed the residents there," he said.

Peace building has also been identified as key to creating sustainable solutions in the region, which is often characterized by resource-based conflicts. "The government should help us create peace, then people can settle and work and produce food for themselves," said Nathan Lolong', a member of a security committee established to build peace between the Turkana and Pokot communities. "But even if you create irrigation schemes and there is no peace and people still want to fight over livestock, it is useless."

Officials say the government should prioritize the development of the arid and semi-arid parts of Kenya to stem perennial food insecurity. "The truth is that the government has not been as proactive in arresting the recurrent food insecurity in arid regions such as Turkana but now that for us is a priority and we shall set aside funds to scale up development projects in these areas," said Mohamed Elmi, the Minister for Development of Northern Kenya and Other Arid Lands.

"The government [appreciates] the need to open up these areas for development because as many people are pointing out, people cannot continuously rely on aid, because the moment donor fatigue sets in, the programmes fizzle out and people die."

*not her real name

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