- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

GARISSA, Kenya

the pre-dawn hours, with temperatures still in the teens and a gentle breeze blowing across the dry, dusty dunes where Kenya meets Somalia, Gala began walking with six tethered camels in a desperate search for water.

Not long after noon, as the mercury topped 105 degrees Fahrenheit, Gala — whose name means “camel” in Somali — finally reached a borehole where gas-powered pumps helped draw a steady stream of hot, clear water.

She walked for nearly nine hours, matching the pace of her groaning camels for about 25 miles, past dry riverbeds and small round huts patched with plastic and cardboard, sheltering nomads also moving in pursuit of water.

“Where is water? Where will we find it otherwise?” the woman asked in Somali as she struggled to control the lead camel.

All across the Horn of Africa’s remote and barren regions, a crippling drought has pushed people incredible distances in a frantic hunt for water.

“We anticipate that the situation is going to get much worse because the rains have not yet come,” said Evans Ktule, district officer for the Liboi Division on the border between Kenya and Somalia, where months without rain have produced severe drought.

Tied to Gala’s camels were dozens of yellow 5- and 10-gallon jerrycans, meant to supply 10 families, each with at least eight children, with a week’s worth of water for washing, cooking and drinking.

In seven days, as the skinny camels start complaining of thirst again, Gala’s long walk will start over.

After three years without sufficient rain, at least 11 million people spread over five African countries face famine, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP), which has begun a fundraising tour of the region in hopes of drawing attention to the plight of the most vulnerable people.

So far, $186 million has been donated by the developed countries, but the WFP expects it will need $574 million to meet the needs of emergency cases in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

“It’s our top priority,” said Umberto Greco, head of the WFP office in isolated Dadaab, where there are 130,000 Somali refugees.

If nothing happens to improve the food supply in the next couple of months, the drought’s victims will find themselves in a “terrible situation,” he said. Already, more than 40 people have died from drought-related causes in northern Kenya. Estimates suggest that by next month, half the cattle in Kenya and 80 percent of cattle in parts of Somalia will have died.

“If there’s no rain, there’s no pastures. If there’s no pastures, the cows cannot feed, and therefore, they die,” said Margaret Mwaniki, project coordinator for Caritas International, which groups 162 Catholic relief, development and social-service organizations.

“When a cow suffers,” she explained, “the whole community suffers because they’re the only source of livelihood.”

Behind a thorny fence in Kamuthe, a dusty roadside village, Amina Sahib ran a wooden spoon through a large pot of bubbling tomatoes, beans and corn, a meal to be shared by her family of 10, a couple of visitors moving in search of water and Mrs. Sahib’s remaining cattle.

Once the proud owner of 70 cattle, Mrs. Sahib’s herd has been reduced to three emaciated cows and five calves too weak to stand, now corralled beside the house in an attempt to save them from marauding carnivores.

Just steps from her home, three newly dead cattle rot in the fading sun, surrounded by the bleached bones and skulls of animals eaten by hyenas.

The skin of the newly dead cattle had split over bony spines and ribs, releasing little pools of black blood.

“There are a lot of people desperate just like me,” Mrs. Sahib said, explaining that she was feeding the cattle from the family’s food, hoping to keep them alive until the long rains came.

If they live, they can be used as breeding stock to rebuild the herd, she said.

Rebuilding the cattle herds “will take them years,” said WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon. “This is, sadly, the cycle. The number of cattle yo-yos according to the drought years. That’s why it’s such a complete waste.”

In northern Kenya, the blazing sun brings temperatures that bake the ground and evaporate pitiful rainfalls. The landscape is dotted with wiry bushes and spindly trees, whose thorns are sharp and strong enough to puncture auto and truck tires.

The nomadic population has always coped by simply keeping on the move, shifting herds from one water source to a greener pasture to another water source.

“The natural area where anyone might go with his or her family and animals is no longer available because the area has no pasture and no water,” said Mohammed Qazilbash, emergency coordinator for CARE Canada.

At Abakdera, a poverty-ridden collection of stick-and-mud huts, CARE Kenya workers patiently call out the names of dozens of families registered to receive WFP rations.

“The cattle is over,” said Hussein Abdi, chairman of the relatively peaceful Abakdera settlement, about 28 miles from Garissa down the Tana River’s eastern bank. “The cattle are the most affected, and they have already died.”

Virtually all its cows and goats have perished, so the usual diet of milk and meat has been replaced by 22 pounds each of rice and beans, plus about 40 ounces of oil.

The allotment is meant to last each family an entire month.

Village women walk nearly two miles to the shrinking river to fetch water, though it’s not considered safe for drinking. Mr. Abdi said the children complain of stomach aches on the unfamiliar diet and are suffering without milk.

“Just look at them,” he said, waving his walking stick toward dozens of small children in filthy rags loafing on bags of donated corn. “They are weak.”

Normally, the goats and sheep would go to market in Garissa, but Mr. Abdi said they wouldn’t fetch much in their current condition, and most would die on the journey.

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