Battling drought in Kenya

Published: 17 May 2005 0:00 CET

Andreï Neacsu

Leaning their bicycles against a lone leafless tree, the two boys grab their jerrycans and walk with careful steps towards the water point. They are observed closely by an adult who guards the precious pond.

The children scoop the water and fill their jerrycans with expert moves. The water is brownish green. It is thick and from it emanates a nauseating smell of stagnant water. Most people would hardly dare to dip their hand in this liquid for fear of catching a skin disease.

The two boys quench their thirst, drag the 20-litre jerrycans to their bicycles and pedal towards their village with an obvious air of satisfaction. The journey home will be long but the family will have water.

This is the crude reality for some 5,000 people living in the villages of Mwangulu, Maledi and Patanami on the Kenyan coast. There, like in the rest of the Kwale district, the rain has not come for three years.

The current drought is so severe that the Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, declared it a national disaster and expressed fears that people may face starvation if the response is not swift.

Both authorities and humanitarian organizations estimate that the lives of 2.3 million people living in 200 administrative divisions across Kenya are at risk. The Kenya Red Cross Society will assist 200,000 drought-affected people in the districts of Kwale and Makueni and has launched a US$ 2.7 million international appeal through the International Federation to finance the programme.

In other drought-affected and conflict-prone areas, such as the Turkana and Pokot districts, the ICRC, in cooperation with the National Society, delivers protection assistance to local people.

Getting worse

A Red Cross assessment concluded that, although malnutrition levels are within normal limits, the situation could deteriorate. Preventive measures have been taken, with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) running supplementary feeding programmes in schools, an approach that ensures that school attendance is not disrupted. Red Cross volunteers will distribute food to an estimated 40,000 children under the age of five.

A group of women meets the Red Cross team near Mwangulu’s broken borehole, a few hundred metres from the school. Draped in their colourful sarongs they dance and sing for the visitors. It is not a song of joy. They are calling on the Red Cross to come and help their community.

Elina Mapenzi, the Kwale Red Cross branch coordinator, joins the dance and engages in a singing dialogue which all seem to appreciate.

The discussion continues with the whole community sitting in a circle. Here, people have not been waiting for the Red Cross to start working. They point out the 45 metres of broken pipe that have already been removed from the ground. And they speak about their ambitions of opening a bank account for the community’s water management group and their wish to start an agricultural project once the repairs are completed with Red Cross help.

Health risks

Further inland and speaking the Duruma language — different from the Swahili used along the coast — Mapenzi engages the community in a real democratic challenge:

“Remember that donors do not get money from heaven. They are people like you who care and give from their economies for those in trouble. Choose the right people to represent you in the water management committee! We need to show we are committed to making this water project work. You have to own it. It is the best reward you can offer to those who helped you.”

But it may take longer than Mapenzi hopes for the Mwangulu community to improve their lives. Health issues are high on the problem list. Cholera and water-borne diseases are a real threat here. Hardly anyone boils the filthy water although all know they should. Why? The list of complaints is long.

“It takes too long to cook, the water becomes tasteless and there is not so much firewood,” says one of the women with a glance around her. The only tree on the horizon is the one under which the whole community gathers to protect themselves from the scorching sun.

With 80 per cent of the crop having reached the permanent wilting point in the eastern provinces, there is an increased demand for cereals and pulses but only very small amounts available. In Kasangeni, leaning against the handle of a water pump, Umazi Nyondo finds the courage to smile, an attitude characteristic to most people living in difficult conditions.

“Life is difficult. It’s drought. It’s famine. Nowadays, you don’t wait for the rain. You just plant.” Umazi works as a tailor and says she makes enough money to cover the monthly needs of her 6-year-old daughter.

She grows what she calls in agricultural jargon “cash crops and food crops”: sorghum, maize, beans, peas, vegetables. Food seeds cost 50 Kenyan dollars a kilogramme while planting seeds, 16 times more. Very often people buy the cheaper food grains but instead of milling them, they plant the seeds in the vain hope that they will grow.

Joint relief response

While helping the affected population to cope with the present drought and reduce its impact, the Red Cross will also initiate recovery activities. Besides distributing food, the National Society will work to rehabilitate water sources, improve sanitation and truck water to schools and medical institutions. The Red Cross will purchase drought-resistant seeds and provide the necessary farming tools to 200,000 beneficiaries.

Linnea Ehrnst, a Nairobi-based humanitarian expert with the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), is on familiar grounds in Kwale. Over the past years her organization helped to construct or repair some 500 water points across the coastal province. She is here to assess the appropriateness of the Red Cross intervention and advise on the support SIDA will grant towards the International Federation’s drought appeal.

“The Red Cross approach of combining relief activities with long-term development work is also part of SIDA’s strategy,” says Staffan Wiking, East Africa desk officer with the Swedish Red Cross. Wiking explains that the process of combining community water management and installation management training with health prevention activities is a regular Red Cross Red Crescent practice aimed at empowering communities to “own” the projects they implement.

As unbelievable as it may seem, the people living in the Samburu district need to travel up to eight hours to get water, according to the Kwale district commissioner. “One way to reduce poverty is to help reduce these distances to bearable dimensions,” says Ehrnst.

The aim of local authorities is to make water available seven or at the most ten kilometres from a community. In Samburu there are seven kilometres of pipeline already in use. The Red Cross will help add another six.

Right on the shores of the Indian Ocean lays Ukunda, Kwale’s main city. As Elina Mapenzi puts it: “Ukunda shows the district’s two faces; the ugly and the beautiful, the poor and the rich.”

Kwale is not only the place in Kenya where nearly 50 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. It is also famous for the white sandy beaches of Diani and Likoni and the international hotels where every year thousands of foreign tourists enjoy the sun and the emerald waters of the southern Mombasa coast. And just across the street, people who struggle to keep hunger at bay, cope with HIV/AIDS or drug addiction — both induced by a life without hope for tomorrow.

The Red Cross is trying to persuade investors to help Kwale’s communities, and in particular to target the hotel industry. Elina Mapenzi mentions the Baobab beach resort as its first corporate partner: “But there are 45 big hotels along Kenya’s southern coast and I want them all to join hands with us.”

This article first appeared in the Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine