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National Drought Mitigation Center

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Kenyan agency leader dedicated to preventing drought-related deaths

March 31, 2016

The Honorable Agnes Ndetei, chair of the board of Kenya’s National Drought Management Agency (right), spent a week at the National Drought Mitigation Center, with Dr. Tsegaye Tadesse (left), serving as her main host. Tadesse, a climatologist, is leading a multi-institution, NASA-funded project to improve drought early warning and reduce vulnerability to drought in the Greater Horn of Africa. Photo by Chris MacFarlane.

The Honorable Agnes Ndetei, a Kenyan politician working to reduce the effects of drought, came to the U.S. National Drought Mitigation Center for a week in March to learn about state-of-the-art drought monitoring, and to share her experiences.

“America is way ahead of everyone else in monitoring the weather,” she said. “You’re collecting weather data for the whole world.” (U.S. satellites are a main source of weather information for many places.)

Ndetei is chair of the board of Kenya’s National Drought Management Authority (NDMA), established in 2011. “Our mandate is to keep drought from turning into an emergency,” Ndetei said. “We are providing safety nets for the people so they don’t die.”

People reliant on subsistence agriculture are at risk for food insecurity or famine during drought. Kenya’s drought authority works with the governments of the country’s 23 arid or semi-arid counties as well as international donors to ensure that relief arrives in time to save lives.

In addition to monitoring drought, Kenya’s NDMA monitors the health and nutrition of villagers in remote areas. The agency deploys observers, who fan out into villages to collect data on food availability and whether people are getting enough to eat. The authority has a hunger safety net project in four counties, which currently takes care of 100,000 families on a regular basis and increases during drought, often working through the women.

“Women can use very little to bring up the family,” Ndetei said. “Women are the ones carrying the burden of the world on their shoulders. The woman is going to take care of children and the elderly.” She noted that in some Kenyan cultures, men are less likely than women to spend money on the family’s well-being.

A more diversified economy and wealth can help buffer people from the effects of drought, but one of the challenges Ndetei’s agency faces is that some of the people she is helping have not been exposed to a “money culture,” so part of the authority’s work is finding ways to introduce cash that gets used to feed families.

The agency is using various development projects to reduce vulnerability to drought. One means is by having villagers identify what would help them most, and then helping them implement the idea, such as a communal catchment pond. “People dig it with their hands,” she said. “They create their own asset. Then we pay them a salary.”

Ndetei is also focused on the special challenges faced by rural populations with traditions of goat herding, and she is working on ways to help some groups switch to irrigated agriculture. In cultures where animals are status symbols, herders may be reluctant to sell animals, and may need to drive their herds many miles to find pasture, leaving women and children with scant food supplies. Cultures that initiate young men by sending them to raid neighboring groups’ herds to restock their own herds compound vulnerability, and lead to violence.

Gender roles are sometimes surprising. Ndetei said she learned on a recent trip to a village in Kenya that “The women are the pillars of cattle rustling. They encourage their men to rustle cattle so they can become heroes. If women wanted to, they could finish cattle rustling overnight.”

With seed money from Kenya’s NDMA, cattle rustlers in some of these communities are beginning to undergo rehabilitation programs and engage in various types of businesses for food and education for other family members. Ndetei also used her time in the U.S. to learn more about irrigation, adding, “Water would help these communities lead a more settled life.”

Ndetei also met with Christopher Neale, director of research for the University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute. 

Visit the National Drought Management Agency’s website: http://www.ndma.go.ke/

-- Kelly Helm Smith

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