DADAAB, Kenya (AlertNet) - At a camp near Dadaab, a town in northeast Kenya, 35-year-old Sahara Abdi clutches a worn envelope outside the refugee affairs department, hoping her request to be transferred to another camp in the northwest will be processed soon.
The Somali mother of six has been arguing her case at the office since March. She wants to be reunited with relatives living in Kakuma camp in Turkana district, a three day journey by road. At the same time, she’d like to escape the strain Dadaab’s huge displaced population is putting on aid and local resources.
“We are having problems accessing food, medicine and shelter because many refugees are coming to Dadaab every day,” says the single mother who hasn’t been able to find her husband since they were separated by the conflict in Somalia last year.
Abdi arrived at the camp in Dadaab just over a year ago, fleeing war and worsening drought in her own country. She was wounded badly in the fighting herself - with bullets tearing away her left breast and leaving scars on her stomach and elbow.
But while Abdi may have found safety from conflict, she is now living in a place that is under rising pressure from the arrival of growing numbers of her compatriots.
Recurring drought has made it harder for Somalia’s war-hit communities to grow food, pushing more to leave their homes. But over the border in Kenya, where drought is also biting, the semi-arid Garissa region cannot meet the needs of its surging population either.
Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp with capacity for around 90,000 people, now hosts 380,000. More than 61,000 have crossed the border from Somalia into Kenya this year alone. And the influx has caused a heavy strain on limited resources, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
A similar flow of Somali refugees has also entered Ethiopia - some 55,000 this year, of whom around a quarter are malnourished.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has issued repeated warnings that the Horn of Africa and parts of East Africa are experiencing severe drought, with Kenya expected to shoulder the heaviest burden of those uprooted by food and water shortages.
WFP programme officer Felix Oketch told AlertNet the camp population in northeast Kenya could reach as many as 520,000 people by the end of the year, requiring $8 million in food aid between now and then.
But aid agencies are struggling to raise enough funds to respond to the worsening drought situation. They have received only around half of both the $525 million they have requested for operations in Kenya and the $529 million they need for Somalia.
A spokesman for the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF told Reuters last week that, with the shift in climate patterns, donors should link development support to humanitarian assistance so that poorer nations can cope with cyclical droughts.
"We realised these recurrent droughts used to happen every 5 to 10 years but what we see now is (that) it is basically every other year ... an indication of climate change conditions," said Michael Klaus, UNICEF spokesman for east and southern Africa.
WOOD IN DEMAND
Around Dadaab, people uprooted from Somalia are locked in a tussle for survival with the area’s equally impoverished pastoralist community. In particular, there is growing appetite for wood - a trend elders warn could give rise to a new environmental challenge.
They have already raised the alarm over unsustainable demand for wood to build makeshift shelters for refugees who have not yet been integrated into camps, as well as firewood for cooking.
Shukri Aden Dahir, a youth leader working in Dadaab town says new arrivals who have walked for days across the desert, only to find there is no immediate shelter, have no choice but to sleep under the few acacia trees large enough to provide shade.
“Most of them idle away time as they try to get admitted to the refugee camp,” he says. “Some of them succeed in getting ration food cards but those who do not sometimes hawk firewood and water along the streets.”
Dahir and his colleagues are trying to persuade the provincial administration to relocate some refugees to other camps, but with little success. “We are not making progress and this worries us because it could cause conflict with neighbouring communities,” he adds.
FOOD RUNNING SHORT
Outside Mohamed Ahmed Abdi’s yard in Dertu village, a dozen elderly men have gathered for a village meeting which has erupted into heated argument.
According to the village elder, they were supposed to reach agreement on how to share food supplied two days earlier by the provincial commissioner, which is inadequate to meet the needs of a village that last saw rainfall six years ago.
“The provincial commissioner came on Tuesday and provided us with 20 bags of rice, 20 bags of beans and 20 bags of maize, but promised to bring more after we told him it would not be enough,” says Ahmed.
Assistant chief Jele Dolar Bulle reckons there are about 15,000 residents in Dertu village, but he has recently witnessed 800 new settlements by people uprooted by drought in the neighbouring Kenyan regions of Modegashe, Garba Tulla and Wajir South. He is uncertain whether refugees from war-torn Somalia are also subsisting nearby.
Jele thinks Dertu attracts civilians fleeing conflict and drought because of its status as a Millennium Village, although he is far from certain whether the resources provided by that U.N. development project can sustain its residents for long, let alone the new arrivals.
“If you walk 10km from this village, you will meet 30 to 40 donkeys loaded with wood,” he says. “They are using it to build shelters and firewood for cooking. They are depleting the trees.”
An administration police officer stationed at the Modicare police checkpoint 7km from Garissa town says the growing presence of Somalis in the villages also poses a new security threat to local communities amid the struggle for dwindling natural resources.
“We have intelligence that young men recruited to fight in Somalia, but who have found the situation unbearable, are retreating to Kenyan villages,” says the officer. “They sell off their weapons in exchange for money which they use to start a new life.”
David Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.