In the course of his day’s work last week Stephen Kituku saw hungry children with swollen stomachs, dead animals on roadsides and met families who were surviving on one meal a day.
He’s the National Emergency Officer for Caritas Kenya. That was one day, it’s probably safe to say that what he sees over the next few months will be much, much worse.
Up to 10 million people in Kenya are estimated to be at risk of acute hunger. This current food crisis comes just three years after 3.5 million Kenyans went hungry after a succession of poor rains limited the country’s food production.
“It’s almost as though people forget to think about food security once a crisis is over,” says Mr Kituku. “Kenya relies heavily on rain-fed agriculture so it’s vital we implement long-term projects to ensure that there’s enough water for crops and to teach people about conserving what they harvest.”
The food crisis overshadowing Kenya at the moment is due to a combination of factors. Poor rains led to poor harvests, last year’s post-election violence stopped farmers tending to their crops, which reduced yield, and high food prices have meant many families have been less able to buy food. In some ways the crisis couldn’t have been avoided, but maybe its extent could have been lessened through more attention to development.
“A lot of water policies aren’t adequate,” says Mr Kituku. “There really needs to be more investment in water development projects.”
Mr Kituku says that following the 2005-6 drought, Caritas organised projects to harness water wherever possible. This ranged from the small to the large scale and included creating dams in small streams so water would pool, encouraging people to create stores of water by collecting it from their roofs, as well as implementing general irrigation projects. These projects aimed to provide a cushion when rains didn’t fall and water supplies dwindled.
Caritas is asking for US$4.1 million to tackle the current food crisis. The money will cover a six month project to feed 37,000 people.
The funds will also provide drought resilient seeds, which rely on very little water, to 4,400 farming households. This is something also done in the previous crisis.
Ongoing Caritas development initiatives include building storage houses and teaching people essential practices for storing their food so it doesn’t get ruined by pests.
“Most people don’t have contingency plans. Sometimes there is a lot of food after harvests but this can go to waste because people don’t know how to store it properly,” says Mr Kituku.
Locals themselves can help lessen the impact of a food crisis by being more aware. Mr Kituku says that many animals died in the 2005-6 food crisis.
“The pastoralists saw the signs. Pasture was decreasing and there was a lack of water. They would have had more money for food if they had sold their animals before they got too weak and the price hit rock bottom,” he says.
As more and more people fall into hunger in Kenya, Caritas and other aid agencies are gearing up to provide food aid on a massive scale.
“The best thing we can do now is respond to people’s immediate needs by giving them food,” says Mr Kituku. “But once the crisis is over, we shouldn’t forget how it happened. We need to make sure we implement the longer-term development projects that will limit the impact of future food crises.”