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Carcasses of a camel that died as a result of drought following failed rain seasons is seen at the Morueris village, Turkana North Kenya. Alamy Stock Photo
Irish Aid

'Race against time' to avert a catastrophic climate change-induced famine in Kenya

An Irish diplomatic team has visited the Horn of Africa as the State is due to announce further funding to avert a famine.

LAST UPDATE | 6 Sep 2022

AN IRISH DIPLOMATIC mission to Northern Kenya has said the climate emergency has gripped the area and the beginning signs of a crippling famine are visible. 

Last week Minister of State Colm Brophy travelled with a Department of Foreign Affairs team to the Kenyan region of Turkana and then onwards to South Sudan.

While there he met with Irish man Stephen Jackson, who is the United Nations resident coordinator in Africa, to learn firsthand the impact two years of drought has had on  millions of vulnerable people in the region.  

In July The Journal travelled to Kenya to see first-hand how the climate crisis is impacting local communities but now, according to the Irish team, the situation is even worse. 

Last week this website spoke to Brophy and Jackson about what they have witnessed and how more than 30 million people are facing a mass starvation event that could be one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters.  

When we interviewed the pair they had just come from visiting medical centres in Turkana, managed by the UN and various non-governmental aid agencies. 

Turkana is the northernmost Kenyan county and is a giant area of land which touches the border of Southern Sudan. To the east is Ethiopia and the perpetually crisis-hit country of Somalia. 

The area has a tradition of pastoralism – essentially, subsistence nomadic communities that travel with a large flock of cattle which they depend on for food. 

Brophy said that he has witnessed hundreds of malnourished children and a landscape devoid of cattle or crops with ground that is “baked dry” across the Horn of Africa, after repeated failures of the rain season.

WhatsApp Image 2022-08-31 at 4.58.30 PM Locals wait for aid in Turkana. Eoghan Rice Eoghan Rice

Irrefutable evidence

Both Brophy and Jackson said that, during their visit, they have seen irrefutable evidence that the crisis is caused by drought and that such is the impact of the climate change disaster in the area that the nomadic culture of much of the population has vanished. 

“I have just come from talking to a mother whose young child, called Emily, is so severely malnourished that she is incapable of crying or having any real expression on her face -  there’s just a shrunken, small, tiny child in its mother’s arms, looking out wondering what’s happened,” Brophy said, having toured medical centres in Turkana. 

There is a major operation in the area with feeding stations, as well as a revolutionary method of direct cash transfer to help the local population, whose economic viability has been crippled due to the collapse of the agriculture sector.

What I have had an opportunity to see firsthand is the the majority of children who are reporting to the feeding stations and reporting to the health centres are malnourished. They are severely malnourished in some cases, and they are in need of emergency food support.

“There is an effort taking place on the ground to help those children, their families too and their mothers, but much more needs to be done,” said Brophy. 

Brophy said the wide scale death of cattle from a lack of water has meant that there is a knock-on effect on how the local population feed their children. 

“This has wiped out the supply of traditional foods which the local population survived on.

“It’s also wiping out the supply of milk because the cattle are gone, which is particularly critical for the health of young children and for the health of mothers.

“They are now totally reliant on feeding programmes which have been put in place by Irish NGOs and other organisations, who are working on the ground here – but we need to really do an awful lot more.,” he explained. 

WhatsApp Image 2022-08-31 at 4.54.27 PM Minister Brophy chatting to local people in Turkana. Eoghan Rice Eoghan Rice

Ireland has pumped €78m in aid into the area and is set, in the coming days, to announce a further €3m. It is part of a broad strategy by the Irish Government to proactively intervene in what is fast becoming a major famine event. 

Of this €3.2 million funding package, €1.5 million will be provided to seven Irish NGO partners – Trócaire, Concern, GOAL, Oxfam Ireland, Christian Aid Ireland, Plan International Ireland and World Vision – to meet the needs of those worst affected by food insecurity in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

A further €500,000 will be provided to UNICEF to provide therapeutic food to severely malnourished children under the age of five in Kenya.

The funding will deliver €1m to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to improve agricultural food production in Somalia. A further €200,000 will support agricultural projects in Kenya through the Africa Agri Development Programme.

The only supply of food and water in the affected areas is from aid agency programmes.

Brophy said that there is a way to halt the full descent into humanitarian disaster.

“The key message here is we can stop this. For people that are the generation that remember Ethiopia in the 1980s, we don’t have to reach that point.

And the biggest crime that we could commit as an international community is to get to that point, because we still have the opportunity to stop it before it happens but that requires the collective international action by everybody.

He said a key finding by Irish Aid was that you have to put the resources in now. “And if you do, you can actually stop the worst of a famine situation developing. The situation is already absolutely chronic on the ground but we have an opportunity to stop it reaching that next stage,” he added. 

Destabilising impact

Brophy also believes that a famine on the scale predicted for the area would have a hugely destabilising impact on not just the African continent but globally, and Ireland will not be immune to that effect. 

He said that that the international community also needs to see this from a pragmatic perspective and see that solving the problem now will be more cost-effective in the long term. 

“This is a climate change-induced issue and it is heading in the direction of a famine.

“Whole communities are having their way of life destroyed, and their ability to feed themselves destroyed and if that continues they will be forced to move. So you will be looking at mass migration on a scale and on a level which we haven’t yet seen. 

“It will be hugely destabilising and it has the potential for conflict,” he added.  

WhatsApp Image 2022-08-31 at 4.54.11 PM Stephen Jackson of the UN in the white shirt chatting to locals at a medical aid centre in Turkana. Eoghan Rice Eoghan Rice

Stephen Jackson is a hugely experienced humanitarian, with 30 years experience working in the area.

While studying a mathematics degree in Trinity College, the Dublin man visited Africa on a humanitarian trip and it began a career that has led him to a top management post in the United Nations. He now co-ordinates 25 UN agencies including UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and World Food programmes in Africa.

He said that this crisis is another sign of climate change as a catalyst for humanitarian crises.   

Jackson said the Horn of Africa normally gets two rain seasons a year but these critical events have not happened for two years and there is predicted to be another failure in March. 

Turkana has suffered periodic droughts throughout history but these events were spaced out over 15 to 20 year cycles – that cycle is now broken and it is almost certainly in a long term ecosystem collapse, he said.

“There was a chance for people to recover, there were coping capacities there. But we’re now getting droughts that are more recurrent, deeper, more enduring – they go on longer, and they erode the coping capacity to nothing.

“That is why here in northern Kenya, we’re seeing pastoralist communities that literally have no animals left. In the two days we’ve been up here, I didn’t see one live cow, not one,” he said.  

Jackson said that the Kenyan Government has pumped money into the crisis but that the international community needs to come forward with greater aid packages to assist.  

“Last year, it was two failed rainy seasons and the Kenyan government were responding, but now we are in a race against time,” he added. 

End of a way of life

Jackson said the challenge now is one for the international community to come in and assist.

“You’re essentially seeing the ending of a way of life. It’s not clear that pastoralist communities are ever going to be able to go back to that.

“Then, in a context like that, you’re lying awake at night worried about two things. You’re worried about saving lives now. But then you’re worried about what the future looks like.

There is an an answer to that. Climate change is real. The climate emergency is real. It’s happening now in Kenya, and that’s a disaster and it’s grossly unfair because Kenya didn’t cause climate change. We did. We did in Ireland we did in the Global North.

“Kenya produces 1/2000 of the carbon dioxide of the planet,” he added. 

WhatsApp Image 2022-08-31 at 4.58.17 PM Children travelling to collect water in a village in Turkana. Eoghan Rice Eoghan Rice

Jackson believes the solution is a major intervention by the international community, which the UN has started.

“What you can do is help Kenya adapt to the climate emergency and that means introducing drought resistant crops, working on irrigation, working on the water supply.

“We’re working on building a livestock industry that is resilient to climate change, all those things can be done. And we even have the proof of concept,” he explained. 

Both Brophy and Jackson spoke of the tragedy in the destruction of a way of life and a defined culture. Their efforts, it is hoped, will provoke a reaction from the international community to prevent an even greater catastrophe. 

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