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Kenya needs to protect elderly people during drought and famine emergencies

Spending on older people is an investment, not a cost. Reuters/Luc Gnago

Kenya needs to protect elderly people during drought and famine emergencies

Pockets of Kenya are affected by harsh drought. About 4 million people in the country face hunger, starvation, malnutrition and possible death. North eastern and eastern Kenya bear the brunt of this natural catastrophe.

While drought hits everyone, older people, aged 60 years and above , are disproportionately affected. Certain conditions associated with old age, such as decreased physical strength and disability can aggravate their situation.

Studies show that older people face particular challenges during humanitarian crises. These include difficulty in accessing distant relief and service points.

Kenya has about 2 million older people representing about 4% of the total population (46 million). The older population is projected to increase to about 9 million by 2050 to make up for approximately 9% of the total population.

In light of this rapid demographic change, the Kenyan government adopted a national policy that recognises, among other issues, the increased vulnerability of older people to famine and similar situations. These include their exposure to food insecurity, consumption of foods with low nutrition values and their lack of access to resources for food production.

The policy commits to involve communities to help older people during relief and emergencies for example by promoting food storage.

Certain programs address the needs of communities during drought. For instance, residents in poor arid counties in northern Kenya receive emergency food aid and unconditional cash transfers. Other programs provide food vouchers to access basic necessities and water purification tablets.

However, Kenya lacks adequate research on the outcomes of these and other initiatives to alleviate the effects of natural disasters on older people.

Studies show that most disaster response programmes lack explicit focus on older people. Instead they are typically considered as part of general emergency and nutritional programmes.

This needs to change for three reasons.

Firstly, older people are the caregivers left behind to nurture children, the sick and peers when families and communities go in search of greener pastures. They are a vital source of motivation and encouragement during these tough times.

Secondly, older people are are also more likely to be exposed to malnutrition due to a reduced appetite from loss of teeth and weak gums. The low nourishment from the poor diets during a drought further aggravates the situation.

Thirdly, there’s a common assumption that families will provide for older members during the onslaught of drought. But this isn’t always the case. Some live alone with younger dependants, or are childless.

This is worsened by pervasive poverty among older people which makes it harder for them to fend for themselves, irrespective of the season.

These factors are likely to cause psychological problems like stress and disorientation.

What needs to be done

Spending on older people is an investment, not a cost. That’s why Kenya needs to implement a comprehensive public health response that addresses the wide range of older people’s needs, particularly during emergency situations like famine and drought.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) maxim of “leaving no one behind” should be realised. The second goal that strives to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture should also be prioritised.

The onus on government is to support older people through better and more specific responses. The indigenous knowledge and experience that older people have in farming and food production can also be tapped.

Hilda Akinyi, a research officer at APHRC, also contributed to this article