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Kenya Devastated by Massive Drought

October 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Lindsey Hilsum of ITN reports from Kenya on the worst drought to strike the horn of Africa in more than a decade.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the worst drought in a decade in the Horn of Africa.

Lindsey Hilsum Independent Television News reports from Kenya.

And a warning: This story contains some graphic images.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Signs of death litter the ground, and its smell lingers in the air.

Across Northern Kenya and beyond, severe drought has killed hundreds of thousands of cattle and goats. Even the wildlife is suffering. In the bed of the Uasin Giru River, dry for 10 months now, elephants desperately forage for water. The younger elephants have perished, and the Buffalo. The impala are dying of thirst.

People are digging for water in the dry riverbed, trying to provide relief for both wild animals and domestic herds. They say they will have to dig down two meters to find a drop. The Samburu are trekking their cattle further and further, searching for pasture.

This land hasn’t seen rain for nearly a year. The cattle are just scratching around for something to eat, those that have survived. What local people say is that the seasons have become unpredictable. And climate change experts say, probably, that’s the way it’s going to be from now onwards: more drought followed by flooding, more extreme weather patterns. And the people who live in this arid part of Africa, dependent on their animals, are going to have to adapt.

But they don’t have the money to restock herds when they die, nor to build dams to conserve water when the rains come. The Kenyan government neglects this part of the country. And international appeals remain underfunded.

The village of Mpagas is one of the worst-hit. The people here are barely surviving.

LERIAN LAKANA, community elder: Since I was born, I have never seen such an extreme drought. Almost all the cattle have died, and the few still standing are dying now. I had 300 goats, but only 10 have survived. Of my eight donkeys, seven died, and the last one is dying now.

Millions of Kenyans need aid

LINDSEY HILSUM: The women and children hang about under a tree. There's not a lot else to do. The children show signs of malnutrition, and their mothers say, these days, they're often sick. They get a little food aid occasionally, but no health worker has been here to weigh and measure them. They're on their own.

A few miles away, in Namare, a government truck has arrived bringing maize flour. It's not enough, but at least it's something. The U.N. says nearly four million Kenyans urgently need food aid. The women here told me four children had died of hunger in the last month.

NKODELAN LETORE, Kenyan: The children are suffering a lot because there's no milk. The livestock we have now are all thin. We're struggling, and the children are sick, although some are surviving. The famine is bringing many problems to our community, especially to the children.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Red Cross has come to do de-stocking. They buy skinny goats for 1,000 shillings, well above the market rate. The animals are taken to the rocks above the village for slaughter. The meat will be distributed to the most needy families in the community. This at least provides practical and immediate help.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The singing well, a Samburu tradition -- these days, the water table is so low, the well is four men deep. The animals are desperate, and so are the people.

Pastoralism remains the best use of this arid land, but, as herders from different communities and tribes have to travel further to find water and pasture, they encroach on each other's land. The Samburu warriors told me they were fighting the Turkana.

'Survival under threat'

LTACHAWUA LETELEPA, Kenyan: We fight over pasture, because of water, and also for land. Whatever the situation, animals must get water. We were even raided here at this water point. A woman was shot dead here on that day. Women don't go to fight, so we don't like these attack at the wells.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Pastoralists carry not only their traditional spears and knives, but Kalashnikovs. Dozens have been killed in recent months. If they lose all their animals, herders end up unemployed and poor in dusty townships.

JOSEPH LAPARIYO, Community Organization for Development Support: It becomes kind of a survival for the fittest. So, they fight over that scarce resource. And that just the scenario in Northern Kenya now.

LINDSEY HILSUM: A Chinese company has brought a water dowser to the side of the road, which they're building up to the Ethiopian border, welcome, if temporary relief. But a dead donkey lies submerged in the channel where people are scooping water to drink. Already, cholera has broken out nearby.

In the last few days, a little rain has fallen. But the remaining animals are so weak, they can't cope with the cold and wet. If the rains now expected are heavy, they won't restore the pasture, but bring floods and erosion, another curse.

People here don't know what to expect from the future. They just know that drought is more frequent and severe than ever before, and their very survival is under threat.