In Parched Nairobi, Residents Blame Government for Drought Crisis

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 22, 2009

NAIROBI, Aug. 21 -- Across East Africa, drought is again leaving millions of people in dusty countryside hungry, thirsty and dangerously dependent on food aid, the United Nations has warned. But as the weeks wear on, its effects -- less drastic but perhaps more politically potent -- are also creeping into urban capitals such as this one.

In crowded, iron-sheet settlements as well as in high-hedged enclaves of the city's elite, water taps are running dry. With widespread crop failures, the price of staple foods such as corn flour is soaring. Low water levels in dams have led to power cuts, forcing businesses to shut down or switch on expensive, gas-powered generators. And once again, people here are dealing with the nuisance of thousands of cattle wandering along the trash-strewn edges of highways in search of grass or water.

"There's nothing good about being here," said Ezekiel Kasaini, a Masai herder who traded his traditional red shawl for a sweater and trousers and was shooing 150 cows past a wall scrawled with graffiti. "I had three cows hit by cars just yesterday."

Drought in this part of Africa is hardly new, and the scenes playing out in smoggy Nairobi are amounting to repeats of 2005 and 2000. This time, however, the crisis is exacerbating Kenyans' frustration with a coalition government established after weeks of post-election violence last year. People are blaming politicians for the crisis, not nature.

"It's the government's fault," said Mike Ouma Sewe, 42, who owns a garage that has lost nearly half its business since power rationing began a few weeks ago. "They must see this coming every few years, but they do nothing. Now they're talking about wind farming and conservation. They should have done all of that a long time ago."

Similar stories are playing out elsewhere. In the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where the ruling party is facing elections next year, the government has been rationing electricity for two months. In the midst of a construction boom, cement factories there are slowing production and have long waiting lists for the product. Small-business owners are suffering.

"In the good days, I do typing for college students, copy handouts and provide Internet services," said Kalkidan Belay, who works in a shop in Addis Ababa. "Now I barely pay rent because I can only work three days a week."

In the Rwandan capital of Kigali, a government that has prided itself on being forward-looking is now rationing water, and city dwellers are returning to the days of fetching river water or paying expensive vendors to haul tanks to their homes.

But the situation has become especially politicized in Kenya, where people say that the effects of recurrent droughts are exacerbated by systematic government failings. The government currently has 500,000 metric tons of maize in strategic reserves, for instance, but the monthly requirement to feed the population is 300,000 tons, and the crisis is expected to continue for at least two months. The government is also being blamed for the systematic destruction of the country's primary water catchment area, the vast Mau Forest. Despite repeated warnings by environmental agencies, the area has been devastated over the years by politically motivated land grabs by Kenyan elites and settlements of people who have chopped down trees to make and sell charcoal.

As a result, rivers that feed lakes, water farms and hydroelectric power plants are drying up. Though the government has pledged to stop the destruction of the forest, it has not yet taken any action. And other conservation efforts, such as promoting drip irrigation and drought-resistant crops in arid areas and diversifying power sources, have not progressed much.

So when the rains failed in parts of Kenya this year, the effects on Nairobi were predictable.

The rationing of power and water began. Food became more expensive. The cows began lumbering into the city's outskirts, dirt-blown industrial parks and suburbs from the dried-up countryside. And in the neighborhood of Kangemi, a vast sprawl of cinder-block houses and iron-sheet shacks, people stood in line for five hours Friday for their turn at a pathetic trickle of water dripping into a muddy puddle.

"It takes me 30 minutes to fill this bucket," said Sara Obanda, 47, who had finally reached the trickle and was dipping an old plastic margarine container into the puddle. For her family, she would need at least seven buckets for the day.

Normally, Obanda and her neighbors get water from shared outdoor taps, the use of which is usually covered in the monthly rent. These days, those who do not wish to wait by the puddle can buy water from a kind of water mafia that guards one of the few, sporadically working taps across the highway from the neighborhood.

One of the guards, Paul Kariuki, was filling up six 20-liter containers of water Friday, and he planned to sell each for perhaps 30 shillings -- about 40 cents. But with families stretched because of high food prices, Kariuki said that even the water-hawking business is not going well these days.

"All the problems we are facing now are because of the government," he said. "It's terrible."

Special correspondent Kassahun Addis in Addis Ababa contributed.

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