Glory is Kenya's past, drought and famine its future

September 19, 2000|By David Snyder

NAIROBI -- Racked by violence and unrest and baked by equatorial sun, the long-troubled Horn of Africa is again in the news. Gripped by widespread drought, the region now finds itself facing the all-too-familiar specter of famine. Millions of people are directly at risk of starvation, and conditions continue to worsen.

Even in this drought-prone region the scale of this ongoing crisis is immense, threatening countries that have traditionally fallen outside of the drought belt. Chief among these is Kenya, a once-prosperous country and popular tourist destination known for years as the jewel of East Africa.

But Kenya's glory days are increasingly a thing of the past. With skyrocketing crime and poverty rates, Africa's jewel loses more of its shine each day.

Worse, Kenya -- traditionally a food exporter -- is facing a famine that directly threatens the lives of 3.4 million people, according to the World Food Program. Yet bordered as it is by Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia -- names now almost synonymous with conflict and famine -- Kenya's plight has thus far been largely overshadowed by the turmoil that grips its neighbors.

But famine in Kenya is frighteningly real, particularly in the country's eastern and northern districts where little rain has fallen for two years. The maize and bean crops have failed, and livestock is beginning to die as grazing land for the animals withers. As the drought persists, the potential for conflict increases as pastoral people leave their traditional ranges in search of better pastures, thus encroaching upon neighboring groups in the increasing competition for shrinking resources.

The impact of this drought reaches as far south as Tanzania and seriously has affected even the typically productive farm areas around Kenya's Rift Valley. Thus far, 22 of the country's 53 districts are facing famine conditions. While some locally produced food is still available in markets across the country, these supplies are destined to run out as the drought drags on, posing an even more serious threat to the rural population that depends on these outlets.

But the drought is having serious repercussions in urban areas as well.

Drastically reduced water levels have caused a critical shortage of hydro-electric power, upon which Kenya depends for more than 80 percent of its electricity. In response, the government has instituted a country-wide system of power rationing that leaves many in Nairobi and elsewhere without power for more than 12 hours each working day.

While these regular shortages are dramatically impacting both big industry and tourism, the most profound effects are being felt among small business owners, most of whom cannot afford generators to keep their businesses functioning during outages. For some, each day without business is a day without food.

With no rain in sight, power rationing is likely to continue until the dams fill up again, strangling the economy and pushing many small business owners closer to poverty. Crime, already at critical levels, is expected to increase as more Kenyans face unemployment.

The next harvest will not take place until February, and then only if the much-anticipated brief rains of October and November come. Aid agencies, many of which are already distributing thousands of tons of food aid in the worst hit areas, are gearing up for even wider-scale food distributions as those affected by he drought will certainly need assistance for many months to come.

Some help has begun to arrive. Fearing a worsening of the famine, the United States recently provided $539,000 to Catholic Relief Services for use in soil and water conservation programs in Kenya. The U.S. Agency for International Development has also slated more then $575 million for use in emergency operations across the Horn of Africa, money that will no doubt save many lives.

But the scale of the current famine is astonishing even for this troubled corner of the world. Ironically, on a continent plagued by poverty, civil war and natural disasters, it is Kenya's reputation as one of Africa's success stories that may now rise to haunt it.

Images many have of the glory days of Kenya's past are slow to fade, and some may be tragically slow to act because of it. Much now depends on how quick the world is to realize that the Kenya of fond memory is today faced with the same fate as its starving neighbors. The international community must shake the image of Kenya's relative prosperity and act accordingly -- before the jewel of East Africa disappears beneath the rubble of its own decay.

David Snyder works for Catholic Relief Services' Emergency Response Team. He is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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