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Moment that mattered: Drought is declared a national disaster in Kenya

Kaliti Bonaia, 27, with three of her children inside her home in Badanrero.

Qaliti Bonaia, 27, with two of her children inside her home in Badanrero, Kenya

The drought and famine in East Africa are not making big headlines in the West, but the scale of the disaster facing the area is deeply alarming. According to aid agencies, an estimated 16 million people in the region will require food assistance in 2017. On 10th February the Kenyan government declared a state of emergency, and on 20th February famine was formally declared in parts of South Sudan by the UN. Ethiopia and Somalia are facing a credible risk of famine this year.

With little to feed their children, mothers in the drought-afflicted region face a daily struggle. One of those mothers is 27-year-old Qaliti Bonaia, whose twins Bati and Bhati are nine months old. They live in Badanrero, a remote village in Kenya’s northerly Marsabit County which shares a border with Ethiopia. There has been no rain in Badanrero for a year. As well as the immediate impact on water availability, pasture land and livestock, dry seasons invariably have serious long-term implications for health, nutrition, security and finances as food shortages push prices up to record highs. In Kenya alone, 2.7 million people do not have enough food and are living without clean drinking water, while around 85,000 children are severely malnourished and at risk of dying.

“I wish that it will rain, but until that happens we will continue to suffer. We need water desperately”

“This drought is worse than any I have experienced,” Qaliti says. “There used to be three water points used by all the people in our village. Two of them have completely dried up, the other is filthy.

The water it produces is a very dark orange, but it is all we have. My children have been having a lot of diarrhoea and vomiting because of the dirty water.”

The suffering extends beyond her children. “I used to have three cows, but they have all died because of the drought. You can see across the fields that there are hundreds of dead goats, cows and camels. Some of them have died next to our houses, their bodies are covered in maggots and many are being picked apart by the vultures. It is so hot here and it never rains so the smell of the rotting animal bodies is so bad.”

Livestock are central to the survival of these small rural communities, says Qaliti. “The animals are our only source of livelihood. Without them, we are left feeling hopeless and all our pride is gone.” With crops and livestock dying, diets are desperately, even dangerously plain, providing neither the variety nor quality to stave off hunger and illness.

“For my children, the worst thing is the hunger. Even getting one meal a day is a problem. At best we share one bowl of millet a day. It doesn’t taste good and it causes diarrhoea but we don’t have money to buy other food or spices to flavour it with. We are always hungry. This is not unique to us though; there is no one here who isn’t hungry. I wish that it will rain, but until that happens we will continue to suffer. We need water desperately.”

Although the dual impacts of El Niño and La Niña may have triggered the crisis, the origins of the looming disaster extend beyond the merely meteorological: long dry seasons need not inevitably deteriorate into humanitarian catastrophes. Rapid population growth, decades of local and national underinvestment and political turmoil have caused large-scale displacement of people, leaving crops untended, businesses collapsing and trade interrupted. Refugees are placing pressure on neighbouring economies which are already at breaking point.

In March, the situation in Kenya took a further turn for the worse as the first armyworms, a pest which has decimated crops across Africa, were detected in the country. They threaten the vital corn crop, which is already at risk of collapse. Qaliti says her dream is “to bring up my children somewhere else, in proper shelter, with clean water and good food”. As the environmental problems intensify, that modest dream is looking ever less likely to come true.

At best Qaliti and her family share one bowl of millet a day. According to a UN report published in March, more than 2.7 million Kenyans are currently at risk of starvation

British Red Cross has launched an appeal to bring assistance to drought-stricken areas of East Africa: to find out more, visit


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