Worst Drought in 20 Years Hits East Africa

The scrubby grasslands of northeast Kenya have all but turned to dust.

The nomads, who move from place to place to find water and food for their precious cattle, have given up looking for green pastures. The land is dead. It has killed whole herds of cows, and even camels seem to be dying.

The nomads understand that when the cattle die, it's only a matter of time before people die. It's already happening in the most severely affected places.

The Horn of Africa is facing its worst drought in two decades, and nearly 6 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya are at risk of dying. In recent days the much-anticipated seasonal rains have arrived in some parts of the region, but it's not nearly enough and in many places the sudden rains have led to flash flooding.

The situation is so dire that British aid agency Oxfam has launched an appeal for $36 million worth of aid. Oxfam workers on the ground in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia warn the death rate in those countries will dramatically increase unless more aid is sent in fast.

"This crises might be getting less attention that the tsunami did," Oxfam director Barbara Stocking said. "But the number of people needing help is even greater, and the severity of this crises means assistance is needed on a huge scale."

Thirsty for Help

It is midday on a vast sun-scorched plain in northeast Kenya. The temperature soars above 100 degrees, and there is no shade. Nearly 300 men, women and a few very thirsty children wait patiently. Barely a word is spoken; they are exhausted.

Most people have spent the night here in the open, and more people arrive, having walked since before dawn to get here. Everyone has come for one thing -- water.

For the first time in living memory, the nomads -- proud, resilient, independent -- have turned to the outside world for help. All they seem to have left are bunches of empty containers.

Nuria, a 41-year-old mother with five children, speaks slowly as she explains how, for the first time in her life, she has been unable to find water on her own.

"If we do not get help from the outside we will surely die," she said.

The lifeline appears as a dust cloud on the horizon -- a rickety truck carrying a leaky water tank. It maneuvers into position above a pit lined with yellow plastic sheeting. Within minutes there is a pool of fresh cool water, an oasis in a land that has been turned to desert.

Twice a week, the aid agency Oxfam sends the truck here and to about 30 other places to bring relief to a people hanging on by a thread. At first they move slowly, deliberately, to fill their containers. Then, as the water level begins to drop, the pace quickens and the level of anxiety begins to rise. There is shouting, even one or two scuffles break out.

Dying for More Water and Food

It is easy to understand why, some of these people have been without water for days. They won't get more water until the next truck arrives, which is three days away. The weekly ration per person works out to about two gallons, well below the universally accepted nine gallons per person. But that is all Oxfam can afford right now; it simply doesn't have the funds to bring in more.

"When you see how people are struggling over this water, you just feel desperate to help," said Magdalen Nandula, Oxfam's coordinator in the Wajir district.

"It wouldn't take much," she said. "Just $600 would have paid for another truck to deliver water on this day."

In the end, more than a dozen people walked away with empty containers.

Food is also a growing concern.

With so many cattle dead, the nomadic people are running out of sources for nourishment. Malnutrition and starvation loom. The United Nations World Food Program has distributed food for weeks but faces serious funding shortfalls in all countries.

"I don't think the world has appreciated until the last 60 days how serious this is; this is about as bad as it gets," said James Morris, executive director of the U.N. program. He added that in Kenya alone they are short $170 million, and he's desperate for people to take notice.