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March 26, 2009

Drought devastates livestock in Kenya

by Alison Bevege

Isaac Deka and his three exhausted cows cluster under a thorny acacia tree that provides little shelter from the midday sun. They are all that is left of a proud herd of 55 Borana cattle that were the wealth and livelihood of the 45-year-old Maasai pastoralist, his two wives and five children.

"One of them is already lying down and it will not be able to stand again. By tomorrow or the day after I am not sure any of them will still be alive," said Deka.

Cattle are the economic lifeblood of around 150,000 Maasai scattered in homesteads across Kenya's southern Rift Valley, but now they are dropping where they stand, their parched bodies stinking in the red dust.

Desperate elephants have been digging for water in dried-up river beds as the east African nation experiences its worst drought in more than a decade.

Livestock are being devastated and pastoralists who once sold their cattle for as much as 30,000 shillings ($374) a head are off-loading the beasts one-by-one for as little as 1,000 shillings to buy feed for the rest of their starving herds. Many are now sold only for their skins, worth just 10 shillings per kilogramme, as slaughterhouses will not take emaciated beasts. With no cows left, Maasai herders are left with no means of paying school fees or buying food.

Mary Tingisia, 20, a Maasai mother-of-two, said she had no idea what to do if her remaining 20 cattle died. "We have to start borrowing from people's wealth as we have none of our own," she said.

The government of the region's biggest economy has declared a state of emergency, saying 10 million people may face hunger and starvation after a poor harvest, crop failure, a lack of rain and rising food prices. Its appeal for foreign funds, however, has been hampered by misgivings among donors over corruption in Kenya. Aid agencies put the number in need at around 3 million.

The Kenya Meteorological Department says this year's drought is the worst since 1996. Forecasts are grim, with continued deficient rainfall expected for most parts of the country. "For the next three months there will be very poor rain distribution," said Ayub Shaka, assistant director of the public weather service.

While local commentators have blamed the big dry on factors from global warming to excessive irrigation and the destruction of Kenya's Mau forests, Shaka said the real cause was ocean temperatures. "If it's too warm over the southern Pacific, there is not the pressure to push the rain belt that is in the south up to our region."

The seasonal long rains, once predicted for the second week of March, are not expected to bring relief to the cattlemen of Kajiado district -- a Maasai heartland -- until well into April.
And when they fall, experts believe the drought-affected areas are likely to be hit by flash floods and heavy erosion as there is little vegetation left to hold the soil together.

However, the rains will come too late for many Maasai including Deka and his family. "We don't know what to do unless the government comes in to help...we have nowhere to go."


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