OPINION: Kenya will continue to experience drought, we must learn to manage it better

By Omondi Were

The history of famine in Kenya is appalling.

From as early as 1975, tens of thousands of people were affected with widespread drought that continued to ravage most parts of the Arid and Semi-Arid areas sporadically all through to the 1980’s in repeated drought cycles. In the 1999/2000 cycle though, over four million people would be affected by drought and that precipitated a crisis as it was the worst famine experience the country had faced in almost 40 years.

In point of fact, just two years earlier in 1997, the Moi government had declared a state of national disaster after famine had threatened the livelihood of over two million citizens who were at risk of famine and, as a consequence, death.

The situation could only get worse from there.

In 2004, the long rains failed and as a result of the crop failure, over two million households were hard hit by drought and were in need of relief food. The following year, the Kibaki government would once again declare drought a national catastrophe as the northern part of Kenya was choking in hunger.

There was another short period of drought that affected around 1.3 million people in 2008. In the 2009/2010 cycle though, over 10 million people were at risk of facing starvation and death due to the low yields that were realized that year.

In the 2016/2017 cycle, Kenya once again declared drought a national emergency due to the failure of the October- December rains. This past month – March – we were brought back to the very same spot; back to the images of anguished faces of the elderly and malnourished children and livestock carcasses in our local media; back to pleas for relief food and aid from hunger-stricken citizens, as if they are children of a lesser Kenya; back to having some Kenyans clutching at straws.

Understandably, for most of the instances the drought has always been caused by particularly natural occurrences. Climate change, for instance, has been a great contributor. There are two periods within which Kenya receives a majority of its rainfall: the short rains come in the period of October-December and the long rains in the March-May period. When the rain expected in any of the periods fail, there are areas that get ravaged by drought as a consequence.

When only 20% of the country receives regular rainfall, it is no wonder that areas where rainfall is variable are greatly susceptible to drought. The drought in some of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) has also become more frequent due to environmental degradation. It needs no gainsaying that Kenya is greatly dependent on rain for its economic activities. The mainstay of our economy is agriculture and the agriculture flourishes mainly on the availability of rain. Any reduction in the amount of rain expected therefore has dire consequences.

The big question though is if drought has been such a repeated event in our country, why have we not learnt to manage it better?

The government, through a legislation two years ago, formed the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) which – among other things – was to establish mechanisms in ensuring drought does not become a national emergency and to coordinate the efforts of the government in the management of drought. Even after its operations in the over two years, the scorecard of the agency still reads very poorly. As early as January 2019 in their National Drought Update, they had indicated in their website that most ASAL areas had received very little to no rainfall and therefore the fact that drought would follow was definite.

It therefore leaves a lot to be desired when the NDMA CEO James Oduor was in a presser two weeks ago denying that there had been any deaths linked to drought. This was even amplified by the Deputy President who made it seem like there was no famine in the various areas in the first place while at the same time speaking from the other side of his mouth that the government was setting aside Ksh.2 billion to deal with the drought.

Some of the cabinet secretaries that flanked him during the presser could see the joke because they had even been to the affected areas to donate relief food. Government institutions such as NCPB had already even released several bags of maize to the affected areas.

‘Deny, always’ seems to be the motto of the government of the day. And that seems to be how they don’t learn from any tragedy that befalls the country.

The truth is successive governments have failed to learn how to sustainably handle famine. Like is happening at the moment, our government is in a rush to distribute relief food to affected areas. This creates absolute dependency on the state and well-wishers in the affected communities and provides no sustainable solution to the crisis.

This year alone, after allocating Ksh.1 billion in January to tackle drought and an additional Ksh.2 billion, a total of Ksh.3 billion will have been expended. Half of that money could easily be used round the clock to provide sustainable and effective solutions to tackle drought in the country way before it happens. The apathy shown by the state in handling famine other than through relief emergency measures is even more appalling.

In 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched four initiatives to counter drought which included a cash transfer programme and livestock insurance payouts: initiatives whose implementation are in limbo.

It is no secret that Kenya will continue to experience intense and worse droughts in the near future if climate change is anything to go by, and so it is time the State put in place mechanisms to ensure there is a coordinated response to drought, enhanced mechanisms for ensuring preparedness and the responsible agency must frequently conduct vulnerability and impact statements of drought on the ground. Communities likely to be affected should be empowered as per the Presidential initiatives launched in 2017. Development initiatives such as good infrastructure should also be launched in ASAL areas because that reduces their vulnerability.

In that same vein, county governments must step up and take care of the interests of its people and not merely perpetuate corruption and ineptitude in the counties. They are the first line in defense of hunger. The very backbone on which devolution rests is to take leadership and development to the people and this cannot happen if people are dying of hunger. The Constitution also provides for the need for coordination between the two levels of government and this is one instance in which the two levels of government should come together very regularly and reach a consensus that provides lasting solutions.

If we are to slay the monster of drought in this country, we must wake up and smell the coffee.

The writer is a Kenyan lawyer with interests in Public Governance, Devolution and Youth Affairs. (omondiwere01@gmail.com)