Reaching the Millennium Development Goals: Eradicating Hunger in Eastern Kenya

This line graph, based on Kenyan rainfall levels during March, April, May, and June since 1900, shows the initial indication that a climate change trend might be starting to emerge, though additional years of data are needed to establish this as a trend.

This line graph, based on Kenyan rainfall levels during March, April, May, and June since 1900, shows the initial indication that a climate change trend might be starting to emerge, though additional years of data are needed to establish this as a trend.

In Eastern Kenya, an area known for its arid climate, a good rainy season can mean the difference between life and death for much of the population. But, as another year of drought descends upon the land, more and more people are turning to humanitarian aid agencies for help, all while the world reels from a debilitating economic downturn. Many in the field wonder if the system can handle such a degree of need and if the worthy but ambitious targets of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals will ever be reached. Researchers from across the globe are forming partnerships and using knowledge gained both in the field and behind the desk to help this region get back on its’ feet.

In September 2000 world leaders came together and pledged to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty, as well as reach seven other goals set by the United Nations. Known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), they are designed to relieve the world’s most pressing problems by 2015, and include halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, providing universal primary education, and ensuring environmental sustainability. These eight goals represent an unprecedented global partnership, both in size and scope, and have come to symbolize a new age of humanitarianism.

Since 2000, many gains have been made: the number of people living in extreme poverty in the developing world has shrunk from half of the population to a quarter; Enrollment in primary education has increased to 88%, with the largest gains being made in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia; And the deaths of children under five worldwide has continued to decline.

But, as we pass the halfway point toward reaching the deadline for the MDGs, new obstacles continue to appear and serve as a telling reminder of just how hard success can be, even with the support of the entire world.

In the battle against hunger, unanticipated problems continue to arise, such as the worldwide financial crisis of the past year and the ever-changing climate situation, which has thrust relatively stable countries like Kenya into economic and political peril.

The June SST image, obtained from the NOAA Climate Diagnostics Center, illustrates the sea surface temperature warming in the Indian Ocean that Dr. Funk discusses.

The June SST image, obtained from the NOAA Climate Diagnostics Center, illustrates the sea surface temperature warming in the Indian Ocean that Dr. Funk discusses.

Drought has seized the area on and off since 2004 and according to the humanitarian aid agency Oxfam it could take as much as fifteen years for Eastern Kenya to recover from the devastating effects without international aid. As Marcus Prior, spokesman for the United Nations World Food Programme’s (WFP) in Kenya, attests:  “What we are seeing in Northern Kenya, and in other parts of the Horn of Africa, is that drought years are coming more and more frequently, often successively, making life increasingly difficult in a region where there is little development.”

The Kenya Red Cross has labeled a staggering 10 million people as food insecure, due in large part to a failed crop season that has pushed food and fuel prices toward record highs. Complicating such matters are continued ramifications from the post-election violence of 2008. As a result, more and more people are in need of famine relief and thus already thin resources are being stretched even further as aid agencies such as the World Food Programme try to keep up with the ever-growing need.

Climate change has been another factor complicating the situation in Kenya and researchers from a variety of different institutions are coming together to understand the reasons behind such changes, and what, if anything, can be done.

According to an upcoming study conducted by Dr. Chris Funk, a United States Geological Survey research geographer at the University of Santa Barbara’s Climate Hazards Group, and Molly Brown, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the drought conditions in Kenya are likely to continue. A line graph using data from Kenya’s March, April, and May rainfall since 1900 indicates that this decline may continue, though Funk cautions that, “Just one season is not enough to identify the impacts of climate change.” However, he maintains that the evidence in Kenya “quite strongly supports the assertion that anthropogenic warming in the central Indian Ocean is drawing moisture away from Kenya and bringing dry air down across Central and Eastern Kenya.” A recent image from June 2009, obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Diagnostics Center, illustrates these warm sea surface temperatures. Another image from the NOAA’s climate prediction center shows the extreme drought conditions in Kenya using precipitation data. Brown concurs: “We think that the rainfall is likely to continue to decline in the coastal areas of Kenya due to their interaction with increasing temperatures over the Indian Ocean.”

The March-April-May Standardized Precipitation Index (MAM SPI) image, based on precipitation data obtained from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, shows the extreme drought conditions in Kenya with an area of SPI values in the -2 to -3 range in the southern part of the country.

The March-April-May Standardized Precipitation Index (MAM SPI) image, based on precipitation data obtained from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, shows the extreme drought conditions in Kenya with an area of SPI values in the -2 to -3 range in the southern part of the country.

Worldwide, Oxfam estimates that the number of people affected by climatic crises will rise by 54% over the next six years, with devastating consequences for the humanitarian aid system. But, in parts of Kenya huge changes are already taking place, as Marcus Prior’s first-hand experience in the area has shown him: “Evidence from the communities is largely anecdotal, but everywhere you go, people tell you that things are not how they used to be. In many cases, people told me that this was the worst drought they had experienced.”

To help Kenyans deal with the changing landscape, the World Food Programme has been instructing communities in water-harvesting projects and encouraging a change to drought-resistant crops with promising results: “Some communities have, impromptu, copied WFP projects unassisted because they have seen the benefits to neighboring communities. Understandably, encouraging a change to drought-resistant crops is more of a challenge, as it also means a change of diet, but progress is being made,” notes Prior.

But, it is not just humanitarian agencies like the World Food Programme that are providing assistance to this impoverished nation. Advances in remote sensing systems, which image the Earth’s land surface, have helped pave the way for the creation of the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which built upon an earlier warning system for famine developed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1985. FEWS NET monitors food security in 20 African countries, Guatemala, Haiti and Afghanistan by using NASA data on long-term changes in rainfall, vegetation, reservoir height and other climate factors to classify food insecurity levels and alert authorities to predicted crises.

However, there is only so much that can be done with this information. The Kenyan drought, though quite problematic on its own, is also exposing many, much deeper problems. The devastating effects of the drought have been further complicated by the area’s pre-existing economic limitations. As Brown explains: “Climate change is challenging the system and exposing its underlying weaknesses from Kenya having not invested in agricultural development.”

The roofs of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. (JR – Kenya aerial photography. 2009 Recommended Reading, Inc. User-generated content is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain license.)

The roofs of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. (JR – Kenya aerial photography. 2009 Recommended Reading, Inc. User-generated content is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain license.)

“Kenya is currently in their dry season, of course, and had quite a poor growing season last year. They also have significantly above normal food prices right now.” These developments have helped create a heightened sense of emergency in Eastern Kenya, with the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) calling it a “malnutrition crisis.” And while aid relief is certainly necessary for the area, more needs to be done with an eye toward the long run for the situation to actually improve.

“What is important for food security in the next few years and decades is to boost per capita crop production, local incomes, and improve transportation so that the export regions can supply the deficit regions with affordable food,” says Brown. A task that is easier said than done. Prior echoes this sentiment: “The region needs development on all levels. WFP can only do so much–both our mandate and our resources are limited.”

Though there may be little that can be done in the short run to radically improve the situation in Kenya, scientists like Brown are looking towards the future: “FEWS NET is still working with USAID to try to understand how to cope with trends over decades in their efforts to sustain and improve food security.”

Improvement over decades may prove to be a more realistic and ultimately attainable target for achieving real change in this region, both on an economic and environmental scale compared to the MDG’s decidedly more ambitious deadline of 2015. But, even if the target goals aren’t exactly met, the UN has certainly succeeded in many ways. The world has been shocked into action, and awareness of these issues is higher than ever, while the lack of significant progress has, perhaps inadvertently, shown just how extensive these problems truly are. They will most likely take more than a generation to solve.