We had been on our way to visit the village of Roka in Tana River County, Kenya, to view work done by Concern Worldwide to install a water pumping system for villagers to help them survive the drought which has been raging for the last two years.
Instead, we were faced with its grim reality. We counted the remains of 45 cattle. Many were just bones wrapped in skin. A couple still had ropes around their heads, used by the pastoral farmers to lead them from one watering spot and pastureland to the next.
A couple of hundred of metres away there was a water pan – a man-made reservoir designed to trap and store rain water if and when it fell. It was capable of holding thousands of litres of water for months after the rains which normally came during two wet seasons, Concern’s Caroline Mungo explained. But after three successive failed rains in this region, it was now just a dust bowl.
With the next water point another 20 kilometres away, it was the final straw for the weakest animals who lay down and died.
The dead animals are just part of a much bigger horror story developing across the Horn of Africa where 23 million people are currently in need of humanitarian support after four rainy season over the last two years. These include five million malnourished children – 350,000 of whom will die in the coming months unless there is an urgent response.
Each of the dead cattle scattered on the arid landscape at Mbalambala was worth up to €250 for its owner. These mass deaths wipe out the income of local pastoralists, triggering a fatal sequence of events.
Without money families struggle to feed their families. Without sufficient food, the youngest and most vulnerable suffer first. Severely malnourished children are already turning up in increasing numbers at clinics supported by Concern.
A few days previously I spent the morning at the Sasame Dispensary in Turkana in the north of the country, near the border with South Sudan. The clinic, which is supported by Concern, treats malnourished children and breast feeding and pregnant mothers.
Women began arriving with their small, sick children hours before the clinic opened, sitting under a small tree to get shade from the harsh sun.
There was little conversation or the sound of crying babies as they waited. The adults were exhausted. The babies, weary and lethargic.
Some of the women had walked for more than two hours, carrying their babies on their backs. Several told us they had not eaten for a day or two.
That day the clinic treated 86 malnourished children and 220 breastfeeding and pregnant women. The stick thin arms and legs of the children were matched by the frighteningly thin arms of their mothers as the children were measured and weighed by staff.
“There is no future if the rains (which are due in October) don’t come and we don’t get support,” mother-of-eight Ekal Mudang said. She had walked for two hours to reach the clinic. Many people in her village were sick, she said. The water in local wells was very low and it was dirty. “Without water, nothing is possible. With water, everything is possible,” she said.
Alex Ekutan, a patient attendant who works at the clinic says he sees many cases of watery diarrhea and vomiting. The sickest children need to be hospitalised. The moderately malnourished are provided with highly nutritious supplementary food for themselves and their family.
However, Alex sees several children returning repeatedly to the clinic. He blames this on the dangerously low water supplies in villages.
Engoitt Lokidor is a mother- of-four. She is at the clinic with her children Maraka (4) and Eregae (2), both of whom are malnourished.
The family’s animals have died. Engoitt skips meals so that her children can eat. She also collects wood to make charcoal which she sells. However, the price of charcoal has collapsed also. Where once she got 100 Kenyan Shillings for a bundle of charcoal, now she only gets 50 Shillings.
With less money for maize, she also feeds her children “wild fruits” -- seed pods which grow on plants in the desert. But as the drought tightens its grip on the community, even these fruits are becoming harder to find.
The clinic is literally a lifeline for Engoitt and families in the surrounding area. She leaves with some medicine and a bag of supplementary food, including sachets of a highly nutritious peanut butter paste which her children devour as their mother is interviewed.
She heads off into the barren landscape, carrying the youngest child, with the four-year old in tow. She will return in a fortnight’s time for the children to be checked again.
No rain has fallen in this area since late 2019. The early forecasts are that the October to December rains this year will also fail. The next rains are not due again then until March, 2023.
“In Concern we are scaling up our emergency response across the Horn of Africa to help protect people’s assets – their livestock and their crops -- and help them get through to 2023” Concern’s regional director for the Horn of Africa, Amina Abdulla said. “We need to scale up to prevent this situation deteriorating further. Otherwise we will not be able to cope with the numbers of people who will need assistance in the coming months.”
Eamon Timmins works for the Irish humanitarian organisation, Concern Worldwide. To learn more about Concern’s response to the drought and to donate to support the work visit www.concern.net