Horn of Africa drought means hunger and malnutrition for people at a clinic in Kenya

The malnutrition charts on the walls of the nutrition unit at the Medina health centre paint a worrying picture. The numbers of malnourished mothers and children needing treatment are well above emergency levels.

Alarm bells usually start ringing when more than ten children are treated for malnutrition in any given month, and an emergency is declared if the number exceeds 30.

But this health centre in Garissa town in Kenya’s drought-ravaged north-eastern region has passed its emergency indicator. In May, 52 children were treated for malnutrition – up from 34 in April.

A severe drought caused by four consecutive failed rainy seasons in the Horn of Africa region has left over 18 million people facing severe hunger.

More than 4 million of them live in the arid and semi-arid regions of northern and eastern Kenya. An estimated 942,000 children aged under-5 and 135,000 pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers are acutely malnourished and in need of treatment, up from 755,000 and 103,000 respectively since February.

Sadia Abdullahi, a nutritionist at the health centre says she first noticed a significant rise in malnutrition cases in October 2021.

“We are seeing more and more wasted children and pregnant and breastfeeding women,” she says. “The situation is getting worse with each passing day.”

The drought has also killed over 1.5 million livestock – a source of food and income for the mainly pastoralist communities of this region. Children are not getting enough milk and what animals remain are too thin and sell for little in the markets.

But drought is not the only factor affecting the food security of people in this part of Kenya. The economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, rising prices and now the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on food and energy prices threatens to further increase hunger levels.

Sadia Adow is one of around 15 pregnant women and mothers who’ve received treatment for malnutrition over the past two months. Although her weight has increased, her mid-upper arm circumference still measures only 21 cm. It should be a minimum of 23cm.

“I come from a poor family where we don’t have enough to eat and that’s why my body is weak,” she says.

Some 35 kilometres away at the Sankuri health centre, Fatuma has brought her 6-month-old son Abdullahi for treatment.

“He is weak because there is very little food at home. I don’t even have enough breast milk for him,” says Fatuma.

Abdullahi is given 14 sachets of nutrient-packed peanut-based paste – one per day for the next two weeks when he will return for another check-up and possibly more sachets.

Fatuma has five children. Three have already been treated for malnutrition. In May, the Sankuri health centre treated more than 40 mothers and children, says Fiona Temesi, the nutritionist in charge.

“Normally we treat an average of 15 to 20 malnourished mothers and children per month,” she says.

The World Food Programme (WFP) in partnership with national and county governments is responding to the immediate needs of nearly 19,000 drought-affected families through emergency cash and food distributions, while addressing the long-term needs of 370,000 people through resilience initiatives.

These include supporting vulnerable communities with irrigation systems, beekeeping apiaries, chicken coups, fishponds, rainwater harvesting dams, and providing farmers with seeds and mechanized farm tools.

WFP requires an additional US$130 million over the next 12 months to provide more drought-affected families with assistance. This will cover food and cash for 960,000 and blanket supplementary feeding for 486,000 children and 122,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women in the worst affected counties.

Source: World Food Programme