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Kenya's debilitating drought: 370,000 children in dire need of help

Monday, 23 October 2017 13:05 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The impact of three consecutive poor rainy seasons is now being felt across the country

Looking at newspaper headlines, one would be forgiven for thinking that the impact of the drought is confined to the dry, arid areas of Kenya.

Often unnoticed is the insidious effect on the country's economy, with experts estimating that there have been, "12 serious droughts since 1990". The average annual costs of the damage caused estimated at around KHS 125 billion ($1.25 billion) -- with each drought reducing the country's Gross Domestic Product by an average of 3.3 percent.

Even further out of view is the longer-term effect of the drought episodes on women and children, especially when the rains come and humanitarian efforts cease to make headlines.

Consider this. 2.6 million people in Kenya are severely food insecure. 370,000 children and 37,000 pregnant and lactating women are severely malnourished. The health consequences of this will be catastrophic if not urgently dealt with.

UNICEF, WFP, FAO and a range of United Nations (U.N.) and humanitarian partners launched a revised Flash Appeal in September 2017, seeking $106 million to respond to the current drought emergency. While this will enable the U.N. and partners to work with the Government of Kenya, to save lives in the immediate term, longer-term strategies must be put in place.

Since the onset of the current drought in late 2016, over 3.4 million people in 23 counties are suffering from the impacts of this drawn out crisis. Pastoralists and farmers make up almost 20 per cent of those affected, and over 1.6 million children are today struggling to survive on less than one meal per day.

As expected, populations in arid areas are disproportionately affected. In Turkana alone, one in every three children suffers from acute malnutrition and is at increased risk of death. The situation in Marsabit and Baringo is equally dire.

The impact of three consecutive poor rainy seasons is now being felt across the country -- including in Nairobi. Poor rains severely affect livestock quality, decrease milk availability, and reduce cereal production. As a result, prices of local cereals have increased by 30-50 percent in parts hitting the poorest households the most. Milk is no longer available as the key source of nutrition for young children in many families.

Beyond threatening human life and survival of children, the drought is also impacting Kenya’s long-term development of Kenya. Many children are not attending school in the drought-affected areas of the country, typically because their family has been displaced in search of food and water. As of July, close to 176,000 school aged children were not in school.

With today's technology advances that can predict most drought episodes before they happen, what comes into sharp focus is the need to reduce the causes of vulnerability that make communities precarious to changes in the weather.

This means long-term investments in services such as clean water and hygiene. The recent cholera outbreaks reported in 18 counties, equaling 2,996 reported cases and 55 deaths, underlines the urgency for increasing access to safe water and basic sanitation.

In partnership with the government, the U.N. family and development partners in Kenya are committed to assist with the response to the drought. This cycle of short term emergency response must end. We have to shore up our efforts to build resilience and ensure not a single child in Kenya suffers from hunger and malnutrition.

UNICEF for instance has worked with partners to repair strategic water points and has treated more than 50,547 children for severe acute malnutrition. The government has dedicated Sh. 2.5 billion ($ 25 million) in the form of cash transfers and food, to respond to the emergency. Cash transfers have been scaled up by initiatives such as Cash Transfers for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, Cash for Assets and the Hunger / Safety net Programme.

As a partner of the government and people of Kenya, we as the U.N. family have joined forces to save lives by providing the most basic life-saving services and support Kenya to prevent future crises. We must neither allow the poorest in Kenya to bear the cost nor let this crises stifle Kenya's human development.

Early action saves lives, reduces suffering and, like preventative healthcare, is more cost-effective than responding after a crisis has happened.

Kenya is doing its part to battle the drought, and so should we.

Dr Werner Schultink is UNICEF’s Representative to Kenya. Siddharth Chatterjee is the UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya.