It is said that the last few months have been the driest East Africa has experienced in 60 years. Now the UN's high commissioner for refugees has described the drought currently affecting East Africa as the "worst humanitarian disaster in the world", as the combination of two failed rainy seasons and rising food prices have left almost 10 million people in urgent need of food and assistance.
Short rains in the pastoralist regions of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda late last year were some of the worst on record according to the UN humanitarian agency, OCHA. Even the long rains of April and May started late and were in some areas less than a third of the normal volume. This would be bad in any part of the world ─ but in a country where a family's livestock represent their entire assets, capital and income it is devastating.
No rain means no pastures. No pastures means nowhere for the animals to graze. Most of the cattle and goats being sold on the makeshift markets in refugee camps are either dead or on the verge of being so. One herdsman at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya told the BBC, "I am practically giving them way."
Dadaab is one of the many refugee camps that have been set up in the wake of the crisis, as communities in the worst affected areas continue to lose livestock and crop. In Ethiopia up to 80% of the livestock has been wiped out, leaving 3.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. In Somalia the figure stands at 2.5 million, and has been worsened by the country's civil war inhibiting the activity of aid groups and forcing thousands of civilians to flee.
Among these refugees an estimated 23% are malnourished, 19% more than what would normally constitute as an emergency. Alun MacDonald from Oxfam told the BBC the figures were the worse the agency had seen, with at least 500 people dying in the past few months. Stephen Gwynne-Vaughan, CARE's director in Kenya agreed and said "thousands of Somalis are walking for weeks to reach the camp, many of them arriving acutely malnourished, dehydrated, with nothing but the clothes on their backs."
Yet these are "the lucky ones", wrote Alison Rusinow, the country programme director for HelpAge International, in the Guardian. While they still need food and support, they are at least being cared for by a system doing its best to ward off proper famine – even if, with almost 400,000 others there too, that system is increasingly overstretched and unsanitary.
Outside of the camps animal carcasses litter those areas which have been worse affected: Borena, which has barely recovered from Ethiopia's last famine, and Kenya's arid northern regions, where government marginalisation has magnified the effects of frequent droughts and where malnutrition rates are more than twice the emergency level.
"High food prices, fluctuating rainfall, a rising population and ever dwindling natural resources have created the perfect storm" sums up Leigh Daynes, director of communications for Plan, one of a number of international agencies urgently seeking assistance.
Oxfam launched its biggest ever appeal for Africa last Monday, seeking £50m to help three million people. Christian Aid and Save the Children have followed suit. Yet as Daynes points out, "the regularity and sheer scale of droughts and floods require long-term, increased investment in disasters preparedness" – and that, say the aid agencies, means listening weather predictions (which in this case had showed that this drought was going to be very bad) and initiating a response before images of animal skeletons and starving children appear, not after.