NAIROBI, Kenya (November 9, 2011) — The rain has begun on schedule in north-eastern Kenya, bringing the first real precipitation that many people in the semi-arid region have seen for months, if not years. But while eagerly anticipated, it's both a blessing and a curse.
The rain is a blessing because it raises hopes of relief from the prolonged regional drought that has destroyed harvests, killed livestock and worsened shortages of food and water for the past two years. It's a curse because the parched land can't absorb sudden downpours, which increase the risk of flooding and waterborne disease.
Even if this year's 'short rains' from October to December prove normal, their positive impact will only be felt in 2012, after the next harvest. That leaves not only Kenya's north-east, but the entire Horn of Africa, in dire need of food assistance for months to come.
As always in such situations, children are the most vulnerable. And as worrying as the food-security situation is, access to safe water also remains a matter of life and death here.
Two days before the rains came, the scale of this challenge was as evident as the pervasive dust at the vast refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya. Located about 100 kilometers from the Kenya-Somalia border, the camps now house over 450,000 people. A hundred thousand of them have fled famine and conflict in southern Somalia since June. More than half are children.
Many Somali refugees arrive at Dadaab after trekking for days or weeks through a perilous, desert-like landscape. To meet their immediate needs, UNICEF and its partner organizations are providing them with access to safe water while they're in transit inside Kenya. The aid continues once they've settled in the camps or nearby host communities.
Since July, this effort has reached 936,000 people, including 514,000 children, through a combination of boreholes, wells, water trucking, and installation or rehabilitation of water-supply systems. Despite such far-reaching initiatives, though, there are still children in the Dadaab camps suffering from exposure to unsafe water.
Some of those children could be found recently, as they can on any given day, in the health stabilization center at the Hagadera camp in Dadaab. Run by the International Rescue Committee, the UNICEF-assisted facility admits 10 to 15 acutely malnourished children daily.
Mothers held their weakened infants and toddlers, in some cases two to a bed, around the crowded center's single ward room. Nutrition nurse Sirat Amin explained that 90% of the ill and under-fed young patients – many from newly arrived refugee families – were suffering from diarrheal dehydration caused by unsafe water.
"I came from Somalia and walked all the way," said Nadhifa Mohamed, 23, one of the mothers at the center. "When I got here, my baby got sick and I brought him to this hospital. We have been here for the last six days."
Once admitted to the center, children receive therapeutic milk, along with drugs for malaria, respiratory infections and other medical complications, until they grow strong enough to be treated as out-patients. At the same time, most of them have to rehydrated intravenously.
"The water and sanitation situation in the camps is a concern," said Dr. Milhia Abdul Kader, who leads the IRC health team in Dadaab. She added that both unsafe water and poor hygiene practices contribute to the prevalence of diarrhea. "It's a combination of factors," said Dr. Kader. All too often, she noted, the convergence of child malnutrition, disease and dehydration can be deadly.
Beyond the camps, water is no less of a concern for the local population around Dadaab and in the rest of north-eastern Kenya — a population composed largely of nomadic herders and pastoralists. In all, 1.7 million mostly pastoralist children in Kenya are at risk due to the drought crisis.
At Labisigale village, about 15 kilometers from Dadaab, some formerly nomadic families have settled down permanently. Drought and disease have killed their livestock, forcing them to give up a way of life that has endured in East Africa for centuries.
Before the drought crisis, there were about 150 households living in huts in Labisigale. Now there are 700.
Not far away, in a newly built school serving the village's children, UNICEF struck water in early October after drilling a borehole 179 meters deep. It will provide for the school's water and sanitation needs, and water will be piped to the community for human and animal consumption. Tapping an aquifer that's capable of meeting the daily needs of an estimated 8,000 people, the borehole is a lifeline for Labisigale.
Still, the displaced pastoralists' take on their newfound circumstances is bittersweet. "I lost everything," said one of the recent arrivals in Labisigale, who recalled that she and her husband owned 100 cattle before the long drought set in. Even if the rains resume their historical pattern, her family won't return to nomadic life, she said, "because we have no animals to tend."
Pastoralists in Riba, another north-eastern village, may face a similar destiny if conditions do not improve dramatically. The village is a traditional watering point for herders of camels, cattle and goats. The nearest town, Wajir, is itself a remote outpost accessible only by dirt roads – though the Kenyan military maintains an air base there.
The water source in Riba is a borehole beside a large barren field at the edge of the village. In better days, it sometimes teemed with thousands of camels. Herders stopped there periodically as they led their grazing animals through a wide circuit of pasturelands in northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and the south of Somalia.
One afternoon earlier this month, however, no more than 200 camels drank from Riba's cement troughs. Most of them were so thin that their rib cages were clearly distinguishable. Most were also fitted with a sort of muzzle, fashioned from flip-flop sandals, to prevent them from drinking too much, too quickly, and sickening themselves.
The water supply at Riba is drawn from a deep borehole and stored in large tanks with the help of a pump and generator supplied by UNICEF. It's the only reliable water source for hundreds of kilometers around. Yet without a concerted effort to help the pastoralists build greater resilience, it may not be enough to sustain their livelihoods. The few herders on hand in Riba said they had already lost at least half of their camels to poor grazing conditions and dried-up water sources in the region. The emaciated condition of their surviving stock did not bode well for the future.
As the sun set, the herders slapped the camels' flanks with sticks and barked orders at them in Somali to keep them together after they were watered. It was a timeless scene, but it was clouded by the realization that time might be running out for the old ways in the Horn of Africa.
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