• Child_In_Pain2

In the year 2011 over 30,000 babies died from Starvation due to crop failure in Kenya

Ukambani residents face Starvation as rains fail

Tuesday, 12 July 2011 14:21 BY PHILLIP MUASYA

Dying produce


Beginning today, the Star will publish a three-part series about the worsening drought and food insecurity in different parts of the country. Today, read about the plight of the people in Lower Eastern region and what the government is doing or not doing to arrest the situation and how locals are coping with their miserable condition.


Residents of Lower Eastern region are facing tough times ahead following ravaging drought that has hit the region since late last year. The locals expected harvest from their farms during the short rains that fall between October and December. However, Ukambani region received depressed rains last year which were poorly distributed leading to total crop failure. Since then the general food security has been deteriorating as the price of maize shoots through the roof.

Currently a kilo of maize retails at between Sh50 and Sh60 which is way above the locals’ financial power. In the entire Ukambani region comprising of Kitui, Machakos and Makueni counties, the food situation is moving from bad to worse, and without proper government intervention, lives would certainly be lost.

In the larger Kitui district which now comprises of ten districts, over 700,000 people are facing starvation due to vagaries of drought occasioned by erratic weather conditions. According to Kitui District Drought Management Officer (DMO) Benedict Musyoka, food security situation in the area is “terribly bad”. “The expected short rains last year performed dismally, leading to total crop failure. Now the residents have to survive with relief food to cushion them from starvation,” says Musyoka. He notes that most parts of the district are at Borderline Food Insecure while others are at Acute Food Insecure.

“The food security situation in the district is deteriorating very fast yet drought period has not started proper in Ukambani. By the time we get to August through October, the situation would be pretty horrible,” says Musyoka. The hardest hit parts are Tseikuru, Kyuso, Mwingi Central and Mwingi East districts. Others are Kitui West, Mutito district and the entire Kitui South constituency comprising of Ikutha and Mutomo districts. The locals are forced to engage in illegal activities like charcoal burning and sand harvesting for survival.

Charcoal burning is rampant in the larger Mwingi district, Mutito, Ikutha and Mutomo districts where the land has been turned bare through felling of trees. Charcoal burners have also encroached into Mwingi and South Kitui game reserves as well as Tsavo East National park. Most rivers cutting across the region are now dry as hungry locals scoop sand for sale. Musyoka says one project under the Arid Lands Resource Management is Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) which was started late last year to cushion the locals from the grip of hunger pangs.

Musyoka says the implementation of the programme is through Food For Assets where the communities are organised into groups to develop assets such as earth dams, sand dams boreholes, shallow wells, rock catchments, construction of gabions, irrigation projects, and in return get food subsidies. The officer says that they are collaborating with Kitui Catholic Diocese and World Food Programme to feed the severely affected.

Emmanuel Kisangau is the coordinator of the PRRO programe which he says is the best thing to happen to the famine-stricken residents. “The assets the communities develop are meant to help them in long run and in the process they get food subsidies that last them for about 15 days,” says Kisangau.

The co-ordinator notes that the local residents choose among themselves the households that are hard-hit by famine, saying that they work for 12 days in a month then get the food rations. At the end of the work, Kisangau says that a household of an average of six people is given 42kgs of maize, 7kgs of beans and 2.5 litres of cooking oil to last them for 15 days.

“Since September last year, the programme has benefited 22, 650 households in the larger Kitui district, it has really played a key role in addressing food insecurity in the region,” says Kisangau, adding that the programme will run until April next year when the situation is expected to improve.

The locals are also benefiting from the general relief food distribution by the government. The District Steering Group is charged with the responsibility of assessing people affected by drought and the food quantity required. Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka has assured the government would continue distributing relief food to drought-stricken areas. Speaking recently at Tseikuru market, the VP said the government had set aside billions of shillings towards water harvesting for irrigation farming in order to improve food security. He said Sh1 billion has been set aside for the development of water supply by the Tana and Athi River development Authority in Kitui county and other areas in Lower Eastern.

But even as the food insecurity is being addressed in a small way, another bigger problem is cropping up. Due to the scorching sun, water sources in the region like boreholes and shallow wells are drying up leaving the residents and their livestock in a precarious situation.  

Musyoka, the DMO says, “The prolonged absence of rains has led to the drop in the yield of boreholes and shallow wells, increased salinity levels and declined household access to water,” He adds water for livestock is inadequate and the current trekking distance to watering point is 4 to 12 kilometres compared to ‘normal’ 3 to 8 kilometres. The diminishing water levels are forcing the price of the commodity to skyrocket. However, Musyoka says the office is addressing the problem through provision of borehole fuel subsidies for community run boreholes as a measure to reduce water costs.

He reveals that the Drought Management Office has received Sh3 million towards purchase of fuel subsidies, noting the price of water has gone down from Sh8 to between Sh2 to Sh3 per 20 litres gallon. “We sign memorandum of understanding with management committees of the boreholes to ensure proper use and accountability of the fuel before being given another quantity.  We want the ordinary mwananchi to afford the commodity which should be availed to the people and livestock regularly,” he says.

Due to the sweeping drought there is acute depletion of pasture and natural vegetation in the region. This is slowly sounding a death knell to livestock and soon the community would be buying livestock feed or watch as their animals drop dead.

The livestock condition is bound to get worse with increased livestock migration in the region as Somali herders move thousands of their emaciated animals from North Eastern Province and Tana River districts. The mass movement of the pastoralists’ animals is causing anxiety among the locals since the animals have to compete for dwindling resources. Clashes have been reported in several parts between the locals and Somalis as the two communities fight (see sidebar).

Meanwhile, creative residents of Mutanda, Kauw’i, Katutu and Kabati in Kitui West District have turned into sisal plants for sisal fibre production. “We use the proceeds of sisal fibre and ropes to buy food; the plant is our saviour in these lean times,” says Mwende Muema, a sisal farmer. Merchants buy the fibre in bulk and transport it to major urban centres. The money generated is helping the locals to put food on the table albeit in a small way.

Elsewhere in Nuu location, Mwingi East district, local women are not sleeping on their laurels. The women have formed groups to make ballast which they sell to buy food. Every morning the women head to their ‘factories’ to crush stones into ballast which they sell to construction sites.

“If it were not for the ballast business, things would be tough for us because our crops have completely dried up. Through sale of ballast, we are able to feed our children,” says Ndiu Kilai, a ballast maker.

Some desperate parents like Kalekye Mumo, a mother of three from Kanyangi in Lower Yatta, are forcing their families to skip meals to stay afloat. Kalekye says that her family takes only two meals in a day divided as porridge in the morning and supper. “It is the only way to survive now although I can foresee a worse scenario in the near future,” she says, hopelessness written all over her wrinkled face.