Kenya, Somalia…latest Horn of Africa climate outlook looks dry

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Wednesday, 28 December 2022 17:56

Children from a Maasai community look at the remains of an elephant that died in the drought on community land near the outskirts of Amboseli National Park on December 18, 2022 in Amboseli, Kenya. (Photo by Ed Ram/Getty Images) (Photo by Ed Ram / GETTY IMAGES EUROPE / Getty Images via AFP)

The latest climate forecast showing that the greater horn of Africa will experience its fifth consecutive failed rainy season could not have come at a worse time for its drought-stricken residents who are now forced to brace for another bout of extreme hunger.

50-year-old Jeremiah Kobia stares at the drying khat plants on his two-acre farm under a blistering sun in Igembe North constituency, Meru County.

“I have tried my best to save the plants using fertiliser and spraying pesticides but they are now dying due to lack of rain,” says Kobia of the plants whose leaves are chewed as a stimulant or drunk as an infusion.

A few kilometres from Kobia’s farm James Kitonga is also counting his losses. He recently sold his farm animals after it became untenable to sustain them due to a lack of pasture.

“I had no money to buy animal feed so I had to sell them before they starve to death. I really fear for the future,” laments Kitonga who sold all his cows and goats.

Meru is one of the 25 counties in Kenya that have been ravaged by the prolonged drought, leaving hundreds of residents in need of food aid.  The once agriculture-rich county that produced top-quality khat for export is reeling under the negative effects of climate change.

Igembe North, for example, a once-upon-a-time lush constituency covered with greenery has been reduced to a barren land with residents forced to trek long distances in search of water and pasture.

“This is the worst drought I have seen in my life. I was born and bred here in Igembe but I have never seen a situation where water and pasture have become scarce,” says 43-year-old Elizabeth Ntonyiri.

Meru County recently made headlines after a group of hungry residents consumed the meat of a dead camel, leaving one person dead and others hospitalised.

Depressed rains

Unfortunately, the sorry situation is not going to improve any time soon based on the recent rainfall forecast released by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

According to the WMO the October-December rains for the greater horn of Africa will be depressed and poorly distributed.

It pains me to be the bearer of bad news when millions of people in the region have already suffered the longest drought in 40 years.

The most affected countries will be Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, whose territories will largely remain dry.

“It pains me to be the bearer of bad news when millions of people in the region have already suffered the longest drought in 40 years. Sadly, our models show with a high degree of confidence that we are entering the 5th consecutive failed rainy season in the horn of Africa,” says Guleid Artan, the Director of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC), WMO’s regional climate centre for East Africa.

Richard Mwita of the Kenya Meteorological Department also confirms the bad news.

Mwita observes that since 2016, the country has experienced depressed rainfall which has negatively affected the agricultural sector, the backbone of the economy.

“In 1928 we had a severe drought in Kenya, then again, from 1933 to 1937. In the 50s we also had a major drought. This time round since 2016 we have had depressed rains almost consecutively,” the meteorologist says.

Commodity price shocks

Workneh Gebeyehu, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development  (IGAD) Executive Secretary is now urging governments and donors to work together to mitigate the severe drought, warning that next year will be even more difficult for the horn of Africa region.

“I solemnly renew our call to national governments, donors, humanitarian, and development actors to adopt a no-regret strategy and help us weather the worst of this crisis,” says Gebeyehu.

The WMO’s climate outlook comes at a time when Kenya’s agriculture-based economy is limping due to the commodity price shocks resulting from the Russia-Ukraine war, particularly through fuel, fertiliser, wheat and other food imports.

As a result, the inflation rate has risen sharply to 9.6%, the highest since 2017 when it hit double digits.

The climate forecast will be a major setback to President William Ruto’s administration that was banking on agriculture to turbocharge the country’s failing economy.

Self-food sufficiency

During the campaign period, Ruto promised to increase the contribution of agriculture to the country’s gross domestic product by making available quality seeds, affordable fertiliser and farm equipment and also investing at least KSh250bn ($2.03bn) in the sector over the next five years.

The investments, he observed, would not only spur economic growth but also make Kenya self-sufficient in food production.

However, agricultural experts doubt whether the pledge will be achievable given the far-reaching consequences of climate change in the region.

“It will be very difficult for Kenya to achieve food self-sufficiency considering the myriad of problems ranging from a weak economy, poor farming practices to unreliable rains,” says Job Shiundu, an agricultural economist.

Shiundu adds that so long as the country continues to rely on rain-fed agriculture, food insecurity will persist and even worsen in future.

“Global warming has affected rainfall patterns, amount and distribution hence rain-fed agriculture is no longer a clear-cut panacea to food insecurity,” he adds.

It is the reason why the 71,000 tonnes of fertiliser that the new administration imported a few weeks after Ruto’s inauguration had minimal impact on yields.

“The fertiliser came late when most farmers had planted and also the prolonged drought did not help since fertilisers work better with adequate rainfall,” observes Shiundu.

Humanitarian burden

According to the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) around 4.1 million people in Kenya are food-insecure and in need of humanitarian assistance – a 17% rise since May this year.

To add to the already heavy humanitarian burden facing the country is the increased influx of refugees from neighbouring Somalia.

The humanitarian organisation Save The Children Fund says the severe drought has led to the biggest movement into Kenya in over a decade with more than 20,000 Somalis – mostly women and children – arriving this year.

“The Dadaab Emergency Coordination Task Team (DECTT) warned that the number of new refugees could rise by another 66,000 by April 2023,” says the organisation referring to the 31-year-old Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya.

Venant Ndinghila, the Kenya Red Cross Society’s Emergency Preparedness and Response manager, says the cost of supporting affected families has increased sharply in the recent past due to high food prices.

“Initially we were spending KSh5,000 ($40.6) to KSh6,000 ($48.8) to support a household of five people with food rations for one month but now we are spending KSh9,700 ($78.8),” Ndinghila told Citizen Television in a recent interview.

Low food harvests

To worsen matters, the country is already staring at another failed season with low harvests of staples such as maize, wheat and rice expected early next year.

For example, according to the Agriculture ministry, the ongoing harvesting of maize across the country is set to yield about 30 million bags against an annual consumption of approximately 45 million, which means the government will have to fill the deficit through importation.

Kenya spends approximately KSh360bn ($2.9bn) annually on food imports, however, the amount is expected to increase next year due to the devastating drought.

“The hope was that the short rains would perform better to ease demand for more food imports, however, it seems that will not be the case going by the climate forecast,” says Economist Githinji Kariuki.

Allies of President Ruto are already worried about Raila Odinga’s anti-government rallies, fearing that the opposition leader might exploit the harsh economic conditions bedevilling the country to incite the public against the government.

“We are working hard to sort out the high food prices because we do not want [Raila] Odinga to use it to incite the public,” says a senior employee in the agriculture ministry who did not wish to be named.

  • In 2008 the country witnessed food riots after hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in major towns to protest against high food prices.
  • Food riots were also witnessed in neighbouring Somalia, Cameroon and Senegal, among other African countries.

“It is one thing that the Ruto administration prays does not recur because food riots can easily morph into a bigger anti-government movement that can easily threaten the stability of a country,” says Kariuki.

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