Saleh Saeed, CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide, is currently in Kenya where he has been visiting our humanitarian projects in the drought-stricken region of Mandera. Persistent drought and the rising cost of food have left the people of Mandera struggling to feed themselves, causing rates of malnutrition to soar to around 35 percent. In this blog Saleh reflects on the resilience of local communities in the face of the global challenges caused by climate change.
“I have just returned to Islamic Relief’s office in Mandera and sitting here reflecting on the last few days, my emotions keep swinging between hope and despair.
Lying at the northern edge of Kenya, bordered by Ethiopia and Somalia, Mandera is a dry region of red sand and scrubby trees. It is also at the very heart of the drought that has left a staggering 20 million people across East Africa in need of food and makes visible the very real effects of climate change.
Spiral of despair
According to the Kenyan government, eight million people across the country need emergency food aid, most of them in arid regions like Mandera which has been hit hard by poor rainfall and rising food prices. You may think that you have heard this story before and you would be right. Last year Mandera also suffered from shortages of water and food, but when the rains failed yet again it plunged the local community further into a spiral of food shortages and rising malnutrition. That cycle is becoming increasingly difficult for them to escape.
As I drove through Mandera, I saw people moving with their emaciated goats in search of fodder, while the landscape around them was scattered with carcasses.
Worst drought for years
Mohammed Ali, Mandera’s water engineer told me that this was the worst drought he had ever experienced in 20 years of working for the Mandera Water Office. He said, “The lack of rain means the water pans are dry and that there is no pasture for people’s precious livestock.
“In this region animals are people’s means of survival providing them with food and income, so when the livestock die so do people,” Mohammed said. “People are now sharing their own small amounts of food with their goats in a desperate attempt to keep them alive.”
Oasis of hope
Despite all odds, out of the harsh and dry landscape I did come across an oasis of life and hope. En route from Mandera to Rhamu I saw lush farmland where people were growing tomatoes, maize, onions and even pasture for their livestock. This once parched land had been made green and fertile by a co-operative of agro-pastoralists with the help of Islamic Relief, and was now providing them with food and income.
Mohammed Diriye, a farmer from Yabicho village is one of the first 700 people to benefit from seeds, tools and training provided by Islamic Relief as part of its irrigation schemes. Pointing at the bright green pump supplied by Islamic Relief he said, “This is the reason that my quality of life has improved so much.”
He told me, “We had lost our animals to the drought and did not have any money to buy food. We were relying on distributions of food but this was not reliable and many children had become severely malnourished.”
“But now I am able to grow enough maize to feed my family and my animals and am no longer dependent on aid. I am growing enough fodder to keep my animals alive and well, and also have enough left over to sell at market, along with the various vegetables that I am now able to grow,” Mohammed explained.
Turning the tide
I came away from this community full of optimism in their strength and resolve to turn the tide of despair into hope. By helping pastoralists with irrigation schemes they are now able to grow their own food, to save the lives of their livestock and make money from their crops while supplying the markets with wonderful fresh produce.
Farmers like Mohammed were also determined that the good work would not stop there. He explained that after seeing what could be achieved with a little help, he now wanted to assist other families by extending the irrigation system further into the desert. “All we need is a little help to extend these irrigation canals,” he said.
Brink of survival
I found Mohammed’s enthusiasm and desire to help others the way he had been helped heartening. But I also knew that the task before local communities like Mohammed’s and before NGOs like Islamic Relief is vast. Climate change in areas like Mandera is a reality and has been for some time. The people here will tell you that drought used to visit them every decade or so, now it comes almost every year.
The situation in Mandera is now so desperate that pastoralists are moving across the border into Ethiopia, and most surprisingly into war-torn Somalia in a last ditch attempt to save their animals. But ultimately this is not a problem they can escape from. Across the whole of East Africa drought, food shortages and conflict have conspired to push people to the brink of survival.
This is my first visit to Islamic Relief projects since I became CEO and has driven home the fact that as an organisation we have huge responsibilities and face huge challenges. It is our role not only to support individuals like Mohammed but to tackle the root causes of their poverty before it really is too late.”