By Anthony Langat
GARISSA, Kenya, Feb 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Along a dusty road between the northeast Kenyan town of Garissa and the village of Kasha, the carcasses of dozens of cows and goats lie rotting in the heat.
The ground is bare and trees are losing their leaves due to a drought that has persisted for months. There is no pasture for livestock and the foliage they have been eating is becoming scarce.
Some 2.7 million people across half of Kenya's 47 counties have been affected by the drought, which the government recently declared a national disaster.
Kasha village lies 7 km (4.3 miles) north of the Tana River, which provides drinking water for the community's livestock. Every morning, Hussein Ali's remaining eight cattle and 15 goats head to the river bank where they graze on plants and leaves.
"Tree leaves are all that we have for our cattle to eat now - they go to the river in the morning and come back in the evening," said Ali.
The village is fortunate because it is near a river, but elsewhere in the country, herders must trek many kilometres to find water for their animals.
The government has called for donors to help address the "epic drought" and is stepping up relief operations.
On Monday, it announced thousands of pastoralists would get payouts this month under its subsidised livestock insurance scheme.
More than 12,000 households across six counties in northern and eastern Kenya will benefit from a record disbursement totalling nearly 215 million Kenyan shillings ($2.08 million).
But while herders in neighbouring Tana River County will receive payouts, Ali will not benefit because Garissa County is not covered under the scheme.
The government says it is looking at ways to extend livestock insurance to all pastoralists, but for now the herders in Kasha must struggle along without.
With no income from the milk their starving animals can no longer provide, families are now reliant on food aid and other assistance from the government and humanitarian agencies.
"There is nothing to milk from the remaining cows, (so) there is no food," said Ali.
The government plans to increase food rations and cash transfers to those hit by the drought. The Kenya Red Cross is also scaling up its operations.
Ali, his two wives and nine children received food from the government two weeks ago, but say they will struggle to make it last to the next delivery.
"I was given 25 kilos of rice, 10 kilos of beans and three litres of cooking oil. I have to ensure that we eat a little every day so that it sustains us until they come again after one month," said Ali.
Ibrahim Hassan, chief of Kasha with a population of 6,000, wants the government to increase food aid and others to mount relief operations in his region.
"When I get the monthly delivery, it is always too little to share among everybody but I have to ensure that the most deserving cases receive the food first," said Hassan.
Garissa County's governor, Nathif Jama, said last week more than 300,000 people lacked food and water. Over 200 water pans have dried up, boreholes are overstretched and 200 schools have closed, he added.
The Kenya Red Cross, which has raised 192 million shillings for operations across the drought region, is making cash transfers, issuing food vouchers, distributing aid and helping herders sell off weaker animals before they die.
Livestock is a major part of the Kenyan economy. The government said livestock losses between 2008 and 2011 accounted for 70 percent of the $12.1 billion in damages caused by drought.
Its livestock insurance scheme uses satellites to monitor vegetation available to livestock. When it drops below a critical level, the index-based system triggers assistance with feed, veterinary medicines and even water trucks when animal deaths are imminent.
The average payout will be around 17,800 shillings per pastoralist household, rising to 29,400 shillings in areas where the drought is particularly severe.
Willy Bett, cabinet secretary for Kenya's agriculture ministry, said the disbursement was the biggest ever made under Kenya's agricultural risk management programme.
"(It is) the most important as well, because without their livestock, pastoralist communities would be devastated," he added.
($1 = 103.4500 Kenyan shillings) (Reporting by Anthony Langat; editing by Emma Batha and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)