• Turkana Tribe's way of life is threatened by the effects of climate change. (Getty Images Europe/Christopher Furlong)Source: Getty Images Europe/Christopher Furlong
'I could breastfeed if I could get some food," a new mother in Kenya says in ChildFund Australia video. "My baby tries but there's nothing there for me to give her." Diana Mason of ChildFund Australia says it's this kind of heartbreaking hunger, that's widespread across Kenya, that must be addressed, now.
Diana Mason of ChildFund Australia

25 Apr 2017 - 1:30 PM  UPDATED 26 Apr 2017 - 11:20 AM

Around 22 years ago, I first travelled to Turkana County in the very north of Kenya. What I witnessed during this visit inspired my choice of career, to assist in international development work.

Sharing a border with South Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda, Turkana is a region distinctive for its high temperatures and wide expanses of desert and scrubland, only interrupted by two metre plus termite mounds and occasional strips of verdant green along river edges.

To the first time visitor, Turkana is a harsh, unyielding environment. Yet historically, while rainfall patterns are among the lowest in the country, the annual short and long rains have been mostly reliable, ensuring that there is just enough water to survive the difficult conditions.

Today, however, Kenya is experiencing yet another extreme food crisis, with those in the north most affected. Drought in 2014, followed by poor and below average rates of rainfall in both 2015 and 2016 have led to this critical situation.

Not only have crops failed and livestock suffered, but my Kenyan colleagues have expressed serious concern about the knock-on effects of continued drought - food prices have increased by as much as 30 per cent, and continue to rise. For families already surviving on the most slender of economic margins, this hike in costs is completely beyond their means.

Worse still, there is a real fear that the 2017 rains will bring little relief. We are witnessing, after all, the very real impact of climate change in the region. What was once a 10-year cycle of drought in Kenya, now appears to be occurring every other year.

We are witnessing, after all, the very real impact of climate change in the region.

Communities here are not reliant upon agriculture – the dry conditions mean that arable land is in short supply, and crop cultivation is challenging, if not fruitless, in most of the county.

Instead, families in Turkana are largely pastoralists – with camels, goats and cattle providing milk and meat for household purposes, and income to purchase necessities such as flour, oil and medicine. For young children, camel milk is an important part of their daily diet.

In times of drought, these communities are completely reliant on their livestock; there are no alternative sources of food or income.

As pastures have dried up, many families have been forced to move their animals to other parts of the country in search of water and grazing pastures. Many animals have died along the way.

With men usually undertaking this relocation in distant areas of the country, women and children at home are left without a source of milk, meat or income. It is a risky operation for everyone involved.

In other families, the lack of food to sustain the livestock means they are not healthy enough to sell, and unable to provide nutrition for the family. They face almost certain death.

What is now emerging is a dangerous and life-threatening situation further complicated by the already vulnerable state of so many children. This is a population which has only just begun to recover after the extreme drought conditions of 2014.

Local communities have yet to build up income, livestock, and even their own health status. There has not been enough time for children and families to ‘fatten up’ – they have no additional body reserves and limited emotional resilience from which to draw.

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Melbourne local, Deruka Dekuek fled to Kenya from the South Sudan when she was only a teen. She lived in a refugee camp and was sponsored to attend school at age 16. She now says thank you to the charitable many who gave so that she could break the cycle of poverty and later, immigrate to Australia.

This is also true of the local geography. Aquifers, underground storehouses of water which provide an important water source in Turkana, have not had time to replenish, nor has the quality of the soil rebounded, essential for growing food for livestock. It is drier than it has ever been, and still the rains do not come.

Today, as the world looks on, children and families in Turkana are facing yet another period of drought already fragile, already susceptible to the worst impacts of hunger, and with few resources to support them. It is difficult to show strength in the face of adversity when the body is so frequently tested.

We cannot underestimate the urgency of this crisis. In 2011, around 13 million people in Africa were affected by food shortages. Today, that figure is at 20 million and increasing, according to the United Nations office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. South Sudan has already declared a state of famine; other countries may follow.

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This is a declaration that it is within our power to avoid in Kenya. My many years of involvement with emergency humanitarian response has taught me it is possible to avert the worst outcomes.

Supplementary feeding programs for the most vulnerable members of a community - children aged under five years and pregnant and lactating mothers – can mitigate starvation as well as significant wasting and stunting, the latter often leaving permanent scars of malnutrition.

Trucked water supplies and provision of water treatment chemicals can reduce the incidence of waterborne disease amongst already weak communities, and prevent families from being forced to leave their homes in search of new, and possibly dangerous, water sources.

Supplementary feeding programs for the most vulnerable members of a community - children aged under five years and pregnant and lactating mothers – can mitigate starvation as well as significant wasting and stunting, the latter often leaving permanent scars of malnutrition.

Mass screening of children can ensure that those already suffering acute malnutrition are referred to hospitals for intensive management and care, with lifelong disabilities perhaps prevented. Distribution of fortified food to families can, and does, save lives. Every day.

The collective, global will is also an essential ingredient – the coordinated efforts of governments, aid agencies, donors, businesses, community groups are so vital. I applaud the continuing generosity of every day Australians. As a nation, we are all too familiar with drought –with the devastation that it wreaks to our crops and livestock and farming communities, but also the sense of hopelessness that can prevail. We understand its impact all too well.

Unfortunately, time is no longer on our side. We cannot rely on the rains, we cannot rely on human resilience, which is in such short supply. We must act now before this crisis becomes catastrophic.

Diana Mason is the Public Affairs Director at ChildFund Australia.

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