Kenya: Climate Change Worsening Malnutrition in Children

By Gift Briton

Despite numerous ongoing efforts such as the provision of relief food, funds and medication by the government of Kenya, in collaboration with other partner organizations like World Food Programme(WFP), African Medical and Research Foundation(AMREF) and Department for International Development(DFID), to alleviate the nutrition situation in Kenya, cases of acute malnutrition have been on the rise.

Currently, at least 970, 000 children below five years and 142,000 pregnant women and lactating mothers are suffering from acute malnutrition, according to a recently released report by Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

The number of children under five years old suffering from acute malnutrition has significantly increased in both urban, arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL), by 163% from 370,000 in February 2020 to 970,000 in February 2023.

Furthermore, pregnant women and lactating mothers experiencing the same have also risen by 82% from 78,000 in February 2020. In urban settings specifically, the number of new cases for pregnant women and lactating mothers suffering from acute malnutrition doubled from 4 cases per day in 2021 to 10 cases per day in 2022.

Malnutrition Prevalence in Kenya

Nelson Mutanda, Drought Information Manager at the national drought management authority(NDMA) confirms that the nutrition situation in the country has deteriorated, adding that the increase in acute malnutrition is mainly due to limited availability of food and feeds for animals as a result of severe drought influenced by the cumulative effect of five consecutive failed rainfall seasons.

“Between 2020 and 2023, almost all rainfall seasons failed. It is better when one season fails and another one does well otherwise there would be a huge problem when both the long and short rainfall seasons fail,” Mutanda explains.

He added that the spike in urban malnutrition was specifically due to disruptions in the food supply chain caused by the war in Ukraine coupled with the compounding effects of several failed rains in the previous seasons leading to low agricultural production.

“Kenya has experienced five consecutive below-average rainfall seasons induced by climate change and as a result, drought has become more severe and is spreading to other counties that were previously not arid or semi-arid,” Mutanda said, adding that in 2021 and 2022, for instance, the performance of both the long and short rainy seasons were below average.

Annual Average Rainfall

Even though most parts of the country, including arid and semi-arid counties, have registered the onset of rains (expected to improve the food insecurity situation), getting a nutritious diet is still a luxury that only limited households can afford.

Jane Mwongeli, a 46-year-old widow from Kikunduku village in Makueni county, is one of the many victims whose families are still reeling from the impacts of what experts termed as “the most severe drought in 40 years” in arid and semi-arid areas.

Mwongeli came to realise that her last-born son suffers from acute malnutrition after she took him to the hospital following frequent episodes of diarrhoea, vomiting and coughing which he was presenting with.

She adds that the boy lost his appetite and became weak and that even walking was becoming a problem. “When I took him to the hospital the doctor told me that his body cannot fight simple infections due to reduced immunity induced by lack of adequate intake of nutrients and calories,” Mwongeli said.

The mother of eight narrates her struggles in an effort to put food on the table from the little money she earns using her only remaining donkey (after others died during drought season) to supply water, adding, “I can only afford one meal a day for the children because the money I get is not enough to cater for more than one meal.”

According to the 2022 Kenya Demographic Health Survey(KDHS), one in five children below five years are short for their age, with a majority living in rural areas, and children above two years are more likely to be malnourished than those below two years.

Moreover, the report shows that malnutrition cases among children decrease with an increase in family wealth and a mother’s education. For instance, children whose mothers have no education and are from poor families are more malnourished as compared to children from rich families.

There are numerous factors that determine whether a person is likely to get malnourished, including individual feeding behavior and practices, level of income, cultural practices, environment and access to and use of health services among others as narrated by Kepha Nyanumba, Consultant Nutritionist at Crystal Health Hospital.

According to Nyanumba, a person can have access to the right quality and quantity of food but due to poor food choices and practices they still get malnourished.

“Poor food choices including continuous consumption of fast foods and excess intake of wheat products may cause digestive disorders such as acid reflux, gastritis and irritable bowel syndrome. These conditions tend to compromise nutrient absorption, increasing the risk of malnutrition,” explains Nyanumba.

The nutritionist also points out that some communities have cultures that do not allow their members to embrace food from other communities, adding that these practices limit people from accessing the required nutrients and calories, especially during drought season when there is a scarcity of food, thereby exposing them to severe malnutrition.

Nyanumba further explains that the increase in acute malnutrition cases particularly in rural areas is due to a lack of food and probably a lack of knowledge by pregnant women and lactating regarding the best foods to take during the pregnancy period and the right complementary foods to give their children during weaning.

“During pregnancy, there is an increased need by the body for nutrients and calorie intake. Taking fast-food-known to contain empty calories- during pregnancy exposes the mother and the child to various conditions such as diabetes and diabetes type 1 respectively,” he noted.

Faith Mongeli and her children

Therefore, Nyanumba called on the government to create awareness and educate mothers on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after childbirth and the kind of foods to avoid during pregnancy.

Meanwhile, ASAL regions account for the biggest share of the total number of children under five years and pregnant women and lactating mothers facing acute malnutrition at 97% and 70% respectively.

In order to alleviate the situation, Nyanumaba urged the government to concentrate on building community resilience as opposed to focusing on response activities that are expensive and unsustainable.

According to him, educating and sensitizing communities to understand and use early warnings/timely information, embracing irrigation farming and emerging technologies, building dams and water pans, insuring farmers as well as lowering the cost of agricultural production, will boost community resilience and as a result, reduce the number of cases and deaths.

For instance, he said that providing timely information could have prevented the death of some of the over 2.5 million livestock that occurred during the drought season.

Also, Nyanumba has called on communities to diversify their source livelihoods and embrace other sources of making a living including taking personal initiatives to make sure that each family is food secure.

“It is important for communities that are frequently and severely affected by drought to diversify their livelihoods,” he noted, adding that “it is very risky to keep over 500 animals on a small piece of farm when you can sell some, start a dairy farm and use the remaining money to do other important things.”

In addition, to enhance the sustainability of animal feeds especially during drought seasons, he opined that the government needs to promote some farmers from rangelands communities to do fodder production so that they can sell the feeds to other farmers during the dry season.

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