Drought, funding shortages, mismanagement – main problems in Kenya

Malnourished children cried feebly in hospital in this drought-stricken corner of Kenya, too weak to even make themselves heard as aid agencies warned Tuesday that they do not have money to feed millions of Kenyans hit by food shortages. Information and Communications Minister Mutahi Kagwe announced a day earlier that the number of Kenyans at risk from the food crisis had increased to 3.5 million from 2.5 million. The number of districts affected by drought is expected to rise to 37 from 17, just over half of Kenya's 70 districts.

"These new figures show how bad this crisis is becoming," said Paul Smith-Lomas, regional director for the international aid agency, Oxfam. "The situation is worse than it has been for many years and the hardest months are still ahead of us." The crisis hit as Kenya forecast a surplus harvest of 62,500 metric tons (68,900 tons) of maize. Farmers in other parts of the country were waiting in lines for up to two weeks to sell surplus maize, the nation's staple food, to the national cereal and produce board.

Surplus food in the west of Kenya is being exported abroad rather than diverted to those at risk from the food crisis. President Mwai Kibaki's administration has been accused by lawmakers, citizens and the media of failing to respond effectively to the worsening crisis. The government's attempts to distribute food aid have been ineffective because of the lack of efficient structures for distribution and monitoring, according to Oxfam. In some places aid has been distributed simply by throwing it off the back of trucks, Oxfam said.

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua declined to comment on the criticism. Aid agencies do not have money to buy food from districts with surplus harvests to feed those hit by the food shortages, said Peter Smerdon, spokesman of the World Food Program. "WFP is short of US$44 million (Ђ36 million) now to feed 1.1 million people because of the drought," Smerdon said. "Without new donations, WFP will run out of food to distribute in drought affected areas by the end of February." "Our previous warnings and appeals have sadly received little response from the donors. What is a very limited window of opportunity to avert mass suffering in Kenya is closing very fast," he said. "We don't want Kenya to become another Niger, where in 2005 donation only increased when people started dying after months of appeals for contributions to prevent deaths." British International Development Secretary Hilary Benn met Kibaki on Tuesday and pledged 3 million pounds (US$5.3 million; Ђ4.4 million) to help alleviate the crisis, according to a statement released by the president's office.

One-third of the money will go to dealing with food shortages and the remaining two-thirds will go to providing water in drought-stricken areas, the statement said. Benn later visited the northeastern Wajir District, one of the hardest hit by drought.

At the district hospital's pediatric ward, 12 of the 19 patients there are children in urgent need of nutritional assistance. Doctors hand bags full of dextrose solution to feed the children intravenously. Dr. Wahame Karanja said that in October there were no child deaths due to malnutrition at the hospital, but two died in November, four died in December and three had died by Jan. 15. N.U.