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July 29, 2011

Kenyan herders kill animals as drought worsens

Butchered sheep and goats are strung up in a thorn tree ready for cooking in this remote north Kenyan village, as though the people are preparing a giant celebration feast.

But there is no party here and the mood is grim: in desperation, the villagers are killing the animals upon which their lives depend, rather than see them die in the extreme drought sweeping the region.

“We are not happy to have to kill our animals,” said Elema Warrio, an elderly herder, looking on sadly at the 25 carcasses, the latest to be killed in a weekly cull. “We would be happy if there was grazing and water for them, but since we don’t have a choice, we can only kill them,” he added.

Some 12 million people across the Horn of Africa are struggling from the worst drought in decades, with two regions in southern Somalia in famine. Tens of thousands of people have died, as the international community scramble to provide emergency relief.

“This is the worst drought we have had, and we have lost hope of seeing rain,” said Galgalo Wato, a herder and father of seven, waving at the vast and dusty scrubland surrounding the village of 700 people. The land here is too dry for crop farming, and the community depends entirely on animals for their livelihoods.

“In previous droughts we would lose 20 or 30 animals, but then the rains would come and the calves would be born,” Wato added. “It was never as long as this.”

From a herd of 120 cows, 80 goats and seven donkeys once used to carry water, Wato has just three calves left.

“They are the only hope I have,” he said sadly, stroking the flank of one of the precious animals, which stay in the front half of the family’s grass thatch hut.

His family now survive off monthly handouts from the World Food Programme; some grain, cooking oil, beans and other basic goods.

“It is not enough at all,” he added. “That is only for survival.”

But there is little alternative. With so many people desperate to cash in their livestock — which for the pastoralist life, is all the community’s wealth — the market has collapsed.

Here in the Sololo district of northern Kenya, prices have slumped by two-thirds, but several herders say they often cannot even sell their thin and sickly animals at all.

“They are not interested in the market in the animals,” Warrio said.

The few animals still left in the village’s thorn-walled cattle enclosure show their ribs and bones sharp through their skin.

So aid agencies support the slaughtering of animals, providing cash payments closer to earlier market rates for those who volunteer to cull their herd, and then handing the meat out to the most needy in the community.

“The animals would probably die soon with the drought anyway,” said Ibrahim Adan, who heads a local aid agency running the slaughter scheme in the region for the past five months, a programme funded by the European Union.

“So de-stocking has two benefits; injecting cash into the economy so that the people can buy goods in the market, and providing food for the vulnerable households.”

Once the animals are butchered, lines of mothers dressed in colourful wraps and carrying young children line up.

Fifty families each get half a sheep or goat, much of which will be dried in the baking sun to store it, so it can be rationed for the coming days.

But few are hopeful of relief from the drought any time soon, the animals here are running out, and the community is eating the livestock it needs for long-term survival.

Without outside help, the community would collapse. Aid agencies now also supply water tankers to truck in water for the community.

Before, women and children had to trek 22 kilometres (14 miles) with the community’s remaining donkeys through the baking heat to reach the nearest water point still running.

Giant plastic water tanks are also being set up to store rainwater — when it comes.

But the next rains are not due for another three or four months, and the peope are not optimistic for the future.

“Things are not well here,” said Warrio. “If the next rains do not come, what will we do then?”

Capital FM

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