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Malnutrition Rates Soar as Regional Food Crisis Grips Kenya

Government response needed, humanitarian action insufficient to deal with the “world’s worst food security crisis” in East Africa
Credit: ACF-Kenya, M. Francia

NAIROBI, KENYA — As a severe food crisis sweeps across the Greater Horn of Africa, an estimated 10 million people are faced with food shortages, mass livestock losses, and protracted drought-like conditions. In Kenya alone, some 3.5 million people have been declared food insecure, with significant numbers facing catastrophic conditions after consecutive years of below-average rainfall that have resulted in one of the driest years since 1950. The global humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger | ACF International calls for immediate in-country policy responses and a significant increase in external assistance to avert the life-threatening impacts of drought-like conditions, spikes in food prices, excess livestock mortality, and massive human displacement.

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Failed Harvests, Poor Rainfall, High Prices

With the complete failure of the late 2010 rainy season and its related harvests, and the inadequate, erratic arrival of the 2011 season, rainfall averages have been well below 30% of the 1995-2010 averages in some areas of northern Kenya, with disastrous consequences for subsistence farmers and livestock holders. Livestock mortality rates have reached between 15-30% across the region, with some areas registering highs of 40-60%; staple cereal prices, meanwhile, have remained much higher than last year—100% higher, by some estimates—and are approaching, or have exceeded, record levels.

With conditions already critical for millions of people, and with dire forecasts for the remainder of this year—crippled harvests, quickly depleting sources of water and pasture land, the continuation of high prices for food, water and fuel—this massive humanitarian crisis will only grow in scale and severity unless immediate measures are taken to scale up relief efforts.

Regional Hunger & High Rates of Malnutrition

As families sell off productive assets like livestock to meet their immediate needs in the short term, rates of acute malnutrition have skyrocketed across Kenya. Recent nutrition surveys indicate significant threats to public health in 11 northern districts where global rates of acute malnutrition are registering between 24-37%—way above the World Health Organization’s emergency thresholds of 15%—while cases of severe acute malnutrition, the most deadly form of hunger, have been documented at between 3-9% across Kenya. And while 84% of Kenyan health facilities provide routine nutrition services—thanks to long-standing efforts to ensure uniform national nutrition protocols—monthly admissions for the treatment of severe acute malnutrition have risen by 78% in drought-affected areas of Kenya, a telling indicator of the gravity of the crisis.

Kenya: Lifesaving Recommendations

While drought-like conditions have undoubtedly undermined human security in Kenya, there are clear measures that can be taken by the government to enhance the security and well-being of its citizens during this time of crisis—measures that go beyond enhanced international commitments, which are also clearly needed. Immediate action is needed to ensure the proper scale-up of food distributions and nutrition interventions in hard-hit areas; the full deployment of nutrition interventions to guarantee treatment for the malnourished and provide preventive nutritional support for children under five years of age. Corrective market interventions, finally, could go far in stabilizing food and livestock prices in drought-affected areas. Beyond the obligations this crisis places on the shoulders of the international community, there are clear in-country policy options that could help avert a broader humanitarian crisis.

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