60,000 children face starving to death in drought-hit Kenya

The UN has described it as potentially the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War but the rest of the world seems unaware of how bad things are, writes Paul Healy

Women wait for food rations with their children at a health centre in northern Kenya's Turkana county. Picture: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

Over the next few weeks, 60,000 children in the north of Kenya may starve to death. This is the stark reality of a crisis that has inexplicably flown under the radar in Ireland and around the world.

Drought has led to starvation across huge areas of east Africa. The number of people affected is truly frightening: approximately 25 million people reliant on food aid across four countries. The United Nations has described it as potentially the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War.

It is only when you visit the affected areas that the unspeakable reality of what is happening really hits home; only then that the statistics become real people.

When I visited the Turkana region of northern Kenya last week, I was left speechless by what I saw. At feeding clinics, I saw children of eight or nine months who weighed as little as a new born baby.

These are children at immediate risk of death unless they receive high-nutritional feeding from our programmes. Even those kept alive face significant challenges — severe malnutrition at this vital age can irreversibly stunt their growth and mental development.

The desperation on the faces of mothers as their young child cry for food is heartbreaking. People walk for miles, carrying their children on their backs, to reach help.

The drought in the north of the country is the worst in living memory; worse even than the drought of 2011 which left the region teetering on the brink of famine. The Turkana region of northern Kenya has been left decimated by the drought, with food stocks long since extinguished and millions of people facing into long months of hunger.

In total, 3m people in Kenya are in need of food aid just to survive. Sadly, that number is expected to rise sharply as the effects of prolonged drought
continue to take a massive toll.

People in Turkana are used to short periods of hunger each year immediately preceding each new harvest. This year is different, however. Food stocks began running out in February — six months earlier than usual.

A nutrition survey conducted by the Turkana County Department of Health last week found that in Turkana South region alone, 12% of children under five are now severely malnourished. This is worse even than what is being experienced in regions of Somalia on the brink of full-scale famine.

The government of Kenya has been leading the response to the crisis but the situation is so stark that they have appealed for international assistance. Likewise, governments in Ethiopia
and Somalia have been overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of this crisis.
The situation in South Sudan has been worsened by the ongoing conflict between political rivals.

Conflict has also exacerbated the crisis in Somalia, where the number of people in need of assistance has risen to 6.7m. Of these, it is estimated that 2.5m may fall into famine over the next few weeks.

As with the rest of the region, Somalia has been plunged into crisis by the failure of two consecutive rainy seasons. Central and southern Somalia have registered only a third of their usual seasonal rainfall this year.

The resulting crisis has left the country in potentially a worse situation than in 2011, when famine killed an estimated 260,000 people. The number of children suffering from severe or acute malnutrition has tripled in the last few months. Trócaire’s health centre in the west of the country is dealing with 19,000 patients each month.

Given the scale of the crisis, it is perplexing the degree to which it has gone unnoticed in the outside world. The UN’s appeal for Kenya is just 19% funded, while its appeal for Somalia has reached just 37% of its target. South Sudan and Ethiopia are at 27% and 50% funded respectively.

A busy news agenda has been dominated by the outbursts of the US president, Donald Trump, all the while the biggest story in the world has unravelled virtually unnoticed.

Mr Trump recently withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change — he should visit northern Kenya or Somalia now and see for himself the devastation being caused by climate change in the developing world.

The empty fields and pained cries of hungry children would tell him the truth about the real impact reduced rainfall is having on the world’s poorest people.

Paul Healy is Trócaire’s country director for Kenya and Somalia.

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