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Kenya, Somalia at risk of another ‘famine’ as weatherman predicts poor rainfall
Somali women wait to recieve food at a feeding centre. The region was hit by the worst drought in 60 years between 2009 and 2010. Picture: AFP
Somali women wait to recieve food at a feeding centre. The region was hit by the worst drought in 60 years between 2009 and 2010. Picture: AFP 

East African
Sunday, April 15, 2012

When the Kenya Meteorological Department announced the country would receive inadequate rainfall during the long rainy season (March-May) many people expressed their frustration with Mother Nature.

“Oh God, not again,” said Joseph Kamau on twitter. 

“Another drought coming just when I thought the economy was coming out of intensive care,” said George Kimanzi.

“The country truly needs divine intervention. I cannot imagine another period of food shortages, high electricity bills and water scarcity,” added another Kenyan on Facebook.

The memories of the devastating 2009-2010 drought, in which more than 10 million people were affected in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda, were still fresh in the minds of the three Kenyans.

The drought, the worst in the Horn of Africa in 60 years, sparked a severe food crisis that saw malnutrition rates shoot up, with parts of Kenya and Somalia experiencing what the United Nations termed as pre-famine conditions.

Even before the dust of the devastating drought settles, the country is facing yet another challenging future. The forecast by the Kenya Meteorological Department confirmed the one released earlier by the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre, that Kenya and Somalia would receive inadequate rainfall this season.

During the 2009-2010 drought, more than 3.5 million Kenyans suffered starvation, the number was higher in neighbouring Somalia. Food prices in the two countries doubled, while the price of livestock, the main source of livelihood in the arid and semi arid regions plunged, as pastures turned to desert and animals began dying.

The government declared the drought a national disaster, after more than 385,000 children under five in 13 districts were reported to be suffering acute malnutrition. The two countries got respite after the short rains in the second half of 2011 boosted crop yields reducing the food driven inflation, the main contributor of the rise in prices.

However, going by the two climate forecasts, the respite seems to have been short-lived; the government will need to go back to the drawing board to avert a disaster.

According to the latest Kenya Food Security Outlook Update, long rains are likely to be highly depressed in eastern Marsabit, Moyale, Mandera, Wajir and northern Garissa.

“Due to the lingering effects of the La Nina phenomenon and unusual tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean, the onset of the long rains may be delayed,” says the report prepared by the Early Warning Systems Network.

The report adds that the rains are likely to be erratic, which will affect crop production in Kenya. The prediction, however, does not surprise the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute director, Dr Ephraim Mukisira, who says East African economies rely heavily on rain-fed agriculture.

Irrigation, an alternative to rain-fed agriculture, is yet to be fully exploited in the region. In Kenya, for example, more than 300,000 acres of productive land remain unutilised due to lack of a proper irrigation policy.

Statistics from the National Irrigation Board indicate that the country has an irrigable potential of more than 600,000 hectares but less than 150,000 hectares have been developed. In Tanzania, only two per cent of the total irrigable land is under irrigation and three per cent in Uganda.

In addition, most of the irrigation projects still apply outdated methods such as furrow system that lets a lot of water go to waste.

Instances of failed rains, due to the topsy-turvy weather patterns, are no longer isolated. A 2011 study by the Centre for Forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, found rainfall in the Sahel, of which Kenya and Somalia are part of, has almost halved since 1954.

However, it is not gloom for all the East African countries.  The meteorologists, who recently met in Rwanda under the auspices of IGAD, forecast that Tanzania will be the biggest benefactor of the long rains season. The western part of the country will receive above normal rainfall, while the rest will record normal rainfall.

Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda will receive normal or adequate rainfall, according to the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre. In Kenya, only the western and southwestern parts will receive good rains. A huge swathe of the country extending into neighbouring Somalia will receive inadequate rainfall.

Senior meteorologist at the Kenya Meteorological Department Peter Ambenje, blames the sea surface temperature anomaly over the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for the predicament Kenya and Somalia find themselves in.

Generally, warm sea surface temperatures over the southwest Indian Ocean basin are conducive for the formation of Tropical Cyclones (TCs) during the March to May period. However, the TC presence over Malagasy and Mozambique Channel have a tendency to  divert rainfall–bearing winds from the country and cause dry spells.

“As a result the presence of TC in those areas will affect rainfall performance in different parts of the country, since it will deviate the wind to the ocean and also slow down rainfall-bearing winds blowing inland,” adds Mr Ambenje.

The TC season usually stretches from November 15 to April 30 of the following year.  According to the meteorological department, in the 2011-12 season, three TCs and six Tropical Storms have so far been reported, which is not good news for Kenya. In addition, weak La-Niña conditions (cooler than average SSTs) are still present over the eastern and central Equatorial Pacific Ocean.

“Slightly cooler than average SSTs were also observed over western Equatorial Indian Ocean in January and February, a situation that has weakened the rainfall generating mechanism, resulting in dry weather conditions,” says Mr Ambenje.

Unlike the situation in Kenya, the weather system — influenced by the Congo and Lake Victoria — responsible for rainfall in other East African member states is expected to operate well. It is the reason why other East African member states are expected to record adequate rains in their breadbasket areas.

Though the drought conditions in northern, northeastern and southern parts of Kenya have significantly improved, the UN warns that the country is not out of the woods yet. The organisation, in its Horn of Africa Crisis Situation Report, maintains that food crisis still looms in Kenya and Somalia as a result of the dry spells and the poor rains forecast for the coming months. “Things may have improved, but the few gains made are slowly being reversed,” the report warns.

Even though Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture maintains that food security situation is expected to remain stable for the next six months, it concedes that market prices of major staples, especially wheat, beans and maize are likely to remain higher compared with long term average.

“With national population adjusted to 40 million people, the current maize stocks are expected to last up to June with a surplus of about 5,549,209 bags of maize,” says the Ministry of Agriculture in its latest report on the country’s food situation. 

As at February, the national maize stocks stood at 18,943,575 bags down from 19,042,455 bags, a month before. Since 2011, the maize prices have been higher than  estimated long term average of Ksh2,000 ($24) per 90-Kg bag.

Kari plans to distribute 700 metric tonnes of seeds of drought- tolerant crops to farmers to help increase their farm production.

Apart from planting drought resistant crops, scientists believe the full implementation of the 2003 Maputo Declaration, in which all the East African member states promised to allocate at least 10 percent of the national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development, would help the economies tackle perennial food shortages linked to climate change.


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