This time last year, Samuel Aboto had 600 goats; today, he has none. "I am not exaggerating – everybody knew my goats," he says as he shelters from the sun under a thatch of reeds. Twenty-six months of drought has hit pastoralists in northern Kenya hard, and Aboto is facing the fourth poor rainy season in a row. The last good rain in Nayanae'angikalalio, central Turkana, was between March and May 2012.
Two weeks ago, there was one small shower. Aboto points to an outcrop across a few miles of tawny sand and scrub. "There," he says, jabbing with his finger. A line of camels cross the horizon, the only animals the land can currently support.
Aboto, who has four scrawny sheep remaining, draws a comparison to three years ago, when drought triggered a famine in Somalia and almost 4 million Kenyans were at risk of starvation (pdf). "It was almost the same as this," he says. "That was a combination of lack of grass and disease; this time it's just drought."
The findings of a Kenyan nutrition survey, published this month by the health ministry in consultation with the UN and NGOs, have alarmed experts. In the most vulnerable arid and semi-arid regions, which span about 80% of the country, one in four children is acutely malnourished and requires medical attention.
Overall malnutrition rates in Turkana, Baringo and Mandera counties, and in the west of Wajir, have deteriorated significantly, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). A malnutrition rate of more than 15% is classified as a critical emergency by the World Health Organisation; in many parts of Kenya it exceeds 20%. "The survey found truly alarming levels of malnutrition," says Challiss McDonough, a WFP spokeswoman.
In Turkana Central, the rate of moderate and severe acute malnutrition is 60% higher than a year ago, according to Kenya's health ministry. Last year, 17% of those surveyed – pregnant women, nursing mothers and under-fives– were acutely malnourished. That proportion has risen to 29%.
Aside from drought, numerous factors are affecting access to food in Kenya's arid north, where the majority of people are pastoralists. Rapidly increasing populations have piled pressure on resources, and people have become less mobile. During a dry spell, herders once moved freely across the borders of Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda in search of fresh pasture. These days, national and regional boundaries, and the proliferation of small arms along them, have made it risky to do so.
Cattle raiding is out of control on some borders. "Conflict in the south and east [of Turkana County] is not traditional cattle rustling. It has become commercialised. There are businesses; men and women waiting to load [the cattle] and take them to market," says the deputy county governor, Peter Lokoel. It must be understood, he says, that conflict is contributing to malnutrition rates across the county, especially either side of Turkana's southern border. "Today you are rich; tomorrow you have nothing," he says, referring to the clashes between raiders in Turkana and Pokot.
As herds dwindle, men in Turkana are increasingly relying on their wives, many of whom sell charcoal or handmade jewellery and baskets. They buy maize flour and oil with the few hundred shillings (only a few dollars) they earn. "The quantities are very small: that's what's hurting the most. Food cost 50 cents or a shilling during the first president's era. These days, you pay hundreds and get nothing," says Rodha Lokirion, an elderly woman who lives in a village 10 miles north of Lodwar, the capital of Turkana County.
In Lodwar, 2kg of maize costs about 180 shillings ($2.14); in outlying areas, it can cost more. Residents say the decrepit road that connects Lodwar to the rest of Kenya has contributed to high food costs.
For a trader to travel 300km (186 miles) by bus to Kitale, the first town south of Turkana, it takes about six hours and costs 1,600 shillings – approximately what the average Kenyan earns in a week, according to the World Bank. "It's very expensive. When the road is good, the journey would be two to three hours," says Michael Emekwi Peikan, 31, who scrapes a living by driving a rented motorbike taxi.
On Lake Turkana, one of the region's few reliable sources of protein, fish catches are dwindling. "A lot of people are now engaging in fishing. They lack proper gear, so are putting a lot of pressure on the shallow waters that they are able to access," says Billy Kapua, projects manager at Friends of Lake Turkana, a community-led environmental trust. The shallower waters are critical for breeding fish. "If the government could scale up support for fishermen to make the deeper waters accessible, that would help."
An aquifer below Turkana, which raised hopes of drought relief when it was announced last year, will yield nothing in the short term, Kapua says. There are resources and enough capacity to bolster the relief effort until the end of September, according to WFP, but the country could be hit by a severe funding shortfall thereafter.