By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI, Dec 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenya needs to brace itself for worsening drought in 2017, the United Nations said on Tuesday, using a new early warning system that predicts the availability of forage for animals in the country's arid livestock-dependent north.
People and animals' lives are at risk because they have not had a chance to recover from drought in 2014 as rains were also poor in 2015 and 2016, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
"We really are concerned that the situation is going to deteriorate rapidly early into next year," Piers Simpkin, a livestock expert with FAO in Kenya, told a news conference.
"There is serious drought looming in early 2017."
Large swathes of Africa are experiencing severe drought, with 39 million people hit by a crisis predicted to peak early next year.
The predictive livestock early warning system, developed together with Texas A and M University, shows how much forage will be available in Kenya up to May 2017, using computer modelling of water flows and vegetation growth.
"The months of April and May will present a big challenge," said FAO's Joseph Matere, an expert working on the early warning system.
Kenya's long rains season, from March to May, is critical for the wellbeing of its farmers and livestock herders.
The 2016 long rains were poor, leaving 1.3 million Kenyans in need of food aid, according to the government, which has started distributing maize, beans and rice to hungry people in the worst-affected northern and coastal regions.
Next year's long rains are also likely to be poor, with a delayed start and below average rainfall, Matere said.
FAO has released $400,000 to spend in Kenya on training, vaccination, animal feed and encouraging people to sell animals before they fall sick.
"Generally, responses to drought or crisis are too little and too late," said Simpkin, adding that it can take several months for emergency aid to reach people on the ground.
"In the past, money for water trucking is released after the rains have fallen."
Early responses cost $10 per family, compared to $50 per family at the height of a crisis, he said. (Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)