Without appropriate support, it could take herders in East Africa 15 years to recover from the drought that is now killing their livestock, said aid agency Oxfam International today.
More than 95 percent of the cattle have died in some areas, and local economies are crumbling. In Kenya’s North Eastern province, up to 70 percent of small shops in Wajir have closed because customers are unable to repay mounting debts. Many of them are now dependent on food aid.
"During lean periods the shops would bail us out with credit, but now nearly all the shops have been run down by giving too much credit and not receiving any payment back,” said Mohamed Ali, a resident of Dambas in Wajir. “I don't know how we'll get through this period. So many people are on the brink." Nearly everyone in his community—98 percent—now relies on food aid for survival.
Once the immediate crisis passes, restoring the economy will require the international community to provide cash-for-work initiatives and livestock replacement programs to help herders recover from their losses. The government of Kenya will also need to make a stronger commitment to improving health, education, infrastructure, and other basic services for herding communities.
Based on experience from the 1992 drought, local elders in Wajir estimate that it could take 15 years for some herds to return to their original size—unless the herders get help.
Antar Ahmed, 76, lost all but nine of his 52 head of cattle in the 1992 drought. By 2004, he had managed to build his herd back up to 85. But now, just two of his cattle have survived this drought.
"Now that our livestock have perished, our own lives are in mortal danger," said Ahmed.
The food crisis is also accelerating. The number of children requiring emergency supplementary feeding in Wajir is up 50 percent since January, according to Merlin, a health charity working in partnership with Oxfam.
Despite the shocks it suffers, herding is the only viable way of life in these arid landscapes. Livestock provides for 95 percent of a household’s income. In 2002, livestock production accounted for 10 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product, and much of that is attributed to the herders.
"Pastoralism is a viable livelihood and makes an important contribution to the Kenyan economy,” said Paul Smith-Lomas, Oxfam’s regional director. “But there is an urgent need for improved development and economic policies in drought-affected areas."
Oxfam International is responding to the food crisis in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia by providing food, water, and livelihoods support to more than 500,000 people.