Food Insecurity Caused by Climate Change Affects Family Planning in Kenya

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NAIROBI, KENYA – It is early evening, and one of the fast food outlets in the South C Shopping Center in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is bustling with activity as hungry souls troop in one after the other. But Paul Mwangi, a taxi operator, says that no matter what he orders on the menu, he can’t spend less than 100 shillings, $1.10 USD, on a simple snack.

Mwangi says that food prices have risen dramatically because of environmental degradation and changes in the climate, which have led to weaker crop yields across Kenya.

“I did not know that it would affect us this way,” he says. “I went home to Laikipia in March thinking I would be able to plant. The land was dry. I made two return visits in April. Still, there are no rains, and those who had planted have just watched their crops die under the scorching sun.”

Mwangi says that rising costs across society – combined with ailing crops, which his family depends on for food and his wife sells in order to supplement his earnings as a taxi driver – make it hard to support a large family. He says he recently took his son shopping for school supplies, and the bill totaled slightly more than 3,500 shillings, $40 USD.

“Can you believe that was the bill for snacks, books, and things like soap and oil?” he asks. “The land no longer gives good returns like it did in the past. I can hardly sustain my family of four – two children, my wife and I.”

Mwangi says that because of the changing climatic conditions, he recently agreed to let his wife have a tubal ligation, a procedure that closes a woman’s fallopian tubes. He says this frees them from the anxiety of having more children than they can support.

“If the rains do not come, I will not be able to plant, and my business as well as the one my wife runs do not raise enough returns to pay school fees for my two children and enable us [to] live a somewhat comfortable life,” he says.

Health officials here say climate change has hurt crop yields, and, in turn, the health of pregnant women and their children, who need proper nutrition during crucial developmental years. Kenyans say that dwindling natural resources here can’t support the growing population, leading some to opt for smaller families. Nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, are promoting short-term and long-term solutions, such as planting drought-resistant crops and engaging in family planning. Meanwhile, the government aims to tackle climate change at local and national levels.

If certain changes are made, it is possible for Kenya to meet targets to ensure environmental sustainability, goal seven of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, a U.N. initiative agreed to by countries worldwide to achieve by 2015, according to the MDG Monitor. But it is off track to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, goal one.

Nearly half of Kenyans live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, the rate of inflation in Kenya has soared from 3.5 percent between June 2009 and June 2010 to 14.5 percent between June 2010 and June 2011, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Dr. Robert Ayisi, Nairobi’s medical officer of health on behalf of the Ministry of Medical Services, says that social, economic, political, technological – and especially environmental – changes affect human health. He says that climate change has direct and indirect health consequences.

He says that excessively hot or dry climatic conditions make the human body more vulnerable to health risks. Extreme temperatures also affect the production of food, leading to food insecurity for local residents.

“The local climate will affect land use,” he says. “The less the land is utilized, the less food production there will be, just as we are seeing in Kenya at the moment. This means that expectant mothers cannot get sufficient food supplies and end up with complications, such as anemia that affect the unborn child.”

He says pregnancy increases the risk for anemia by increasing the body’s demand for folic acid, which can be found in foods such as cereal, bread and beans. He says that low levels of folate during pregnancy because of a lack of adequate nutrition also increase the risk of neural tube defects in newborns.

Ayisi also identified a link between the amount of protein women eat during pregnancy and their chances of developing gestational diabetes while carrying children. Ayisi warns that poor eating habits or a lack of food because of weak crop yields here leads to malnutrition and undernutrition of infants and children.

NGOs throughout Kenya are working to ensure pregnant women, mothers and children receive proper nutrition as the climate here grows increasingly unpredictable.

Pascaline Mulwa, a program assistant with The Institute for Social Accountability, a local not-for-profit initiative that promotes local governance accountability through social auditing, research and policy advocacy, says severe climatic conditions mean that mothers can’t get adequate food supplies for themselves and, therefore, can’t produce enough milk to breastfeed their children.

“Unreliable harvests often mean less food to go around and lower levels of nutrition,” she says.

Florence Ndeti, justice and peace coordinator at Caritas Kitui Justice and Peace, the development and social services commission of the Catholic Church here, says unreliable harvests are causing panic for women at home.

“Women are complaining that there is no peace in their homes, there are no rains, and therefore they cannot offer planting or cultivating services,” she says. “Those who have been hiring them to do odd jobs are in turn using the money to buy food because they are unable to plant.”

Ndeti says that for many children, particularly those in rural areas and regions regularly affected by drought, the meal provided at school is the only food they eat each day. Ndeti says if it weren’t for free primary education, many children wouldn’t even be in school to devour this lone meal.

“The hard times mean that parents are not able to pay fees for their children,” she says. “They cannot also afford to provide meals.”

Syprose Mwang’ombe, 35, a hair stylist in Nairobi, says climate change affects family life in various ways and that women, the primary caretakers, bear the brunt of it.

“As a woman, I know we are the chief water and food providers, as well as caregivers to our families,” she says. “Without access to family planning services, the situation on women is made worse during pregnancy when, despite the heavy load, they are expected to still look for water and firewood, which are scarce.”

Jeanette Khakasa, 19, says the changing climate here affects her family’s choices as the increasingly extreme weather threatens their food supplies.

“I have to support my family back home because the rains are no longer coming the way they used to while I was in primary school and we were harvesting a lot and had extras, which we could sell and raise much-needed cash for other basic needs,” she says. “Now, they are harvesting almost nothing.”

Ayisi says that increasing temperatures also increase pollution, which harms women’s and children’s health as well.

“Warm temperatures can increase air and water pollution, which in turn harm human health,” Ayisi says. “In Nairobi, we find there is a lot of pollution from the factories; poor waste disposal both domestic and industrial; contamination of water supplies by animal and human feces. These two expose the residents to respiratory and diarrheal diseases. Diarrheal diseases are another cause of malnutrition, which in turn often causes disease and disability in the children who survive.”

Ayisi says the extent and nature of climate change’s impact on Kenyans vary by area and ability to adapt to the changes.

With the existing population already putting pressure on the environment here, some worry about the current boom in population, which they say will only continue to contribute to climate change while squeezing Kenya’s waning resources.

Fred Cherotwo, a lecturer at Moi University, located in western Kenya, says family planning is key to avoid a population that the earth can’t sustain. In this way, he views Mwangi’s conflict – having fewer children because of declining natural resources and the climbing cost of living thanks to climate change – as a strategy.

“There is [a] need for government intervention to disincentive unplanned births to guard against a spiraling population that it cannot take care of,” Cherotwo says. “This can be done through making the cost of living very high so that people realize that it [is difficult] to meet their basic needs, [let] alone those of dependants.”

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, nearly 80 percent of Kenya’s 38.6 million people are below 35 years of age – and, therefore, are in or are approaching reproductive years.

“Can you visualize [if] each of the 75-percent-plus young Kenyans gave birth to one or two children?” Cherotwo asks. “That would mean 38.6 by two or three in either scenario.”

He says that it is the poor who often have the highest fertility rates, which is what is driving the population size in the country. He says this would place alarming pressure on the already dire problems of food and water security among poor Kenyans.

Moreover, he says that many of the youth are unemployed, meaning they won’t have the resources to support children.

“The youth unemployment in this country is a time bomb that we have to resolve using every available opportunity and resources,” he says.

Cherotwo says that shifting to smaller families will bring generous economic dividends, especially for the 30.2 million Kenyans under 35, and place less of a burden on natural resources.

“We will address the growth in the number of young dependents who need nurturing and educating, while also tackling the number of idle young people who are ready to even kill to get what one has earned,” he says.

He says this will benefit Kenya at the individual and national level.

“Having removed the financial burden of large families at the individual level allows more people to escape from poverty, while at the national level the reduction in demographics causes savings and investment to climb, productivity to surge and economic growth to accelerate,” he says.

He says that controlling one’s fertility is a human right, which is essential for guaranteeing other human rights – such as access to food, clean drinking water and education – by guarding against rapid population growth.

But ensuring access to family planning services to poor women and those with little education remains particularly challenging, Ndeti says.

Ndeti says women in rural areas spend most of their day trying to put food on the table because women are the caretakers here and the lands are no longer as productive as they used to be because of the changing climate. She says this means they often lack time to seek family planning and other reproductive health services. Pregnant mothers on medication even forget to take their daily drugs, increasing the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, which also makes people more vulnerable to tuberculosis.

“We have witnessed even those on TB drugs and even those on antiretroviral therapy forgetting to take their medication because they are too busy looking for jobs that will earn them a few shillings to provide food for their children,” Ndeti says.

Ndeti says that a combination of unpredictable weather and a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS means agricultural skills and know-how have been lost. Fewer people are now able to work the land, particularly if they are ailing themselves, which will only continue to threaten food security and health in the future, she says.

With climate-related disasters also on the rise, Mulwa links climatic changes with women burdened by unintended and unwanted pregnancies.

Elizabeth Ogot, information officer at Bridge Africa, a Kenyan not-for-profit organization devoted to the advancement of equality, justice and the fight against poverty, says that worsening climatic conditions have caused both droughts and floods here in recent years. She cites cases of women seeking family planning services, maternity services and other health services who can’t obtain them because they are unable to reach hospitals because of the floods.

Because of the below-average rainfall in other areas, Ndeti says it’s difficult to farm without investing in irrigation or alternative sources of water. She says local people are devising methods of water harvesting and are beginning to embrace drought-resistant crops. Linking climate change to agricultural losses and birth rates, Mulwa and Ndeti urge farmers to adapt by developing drought-resistant food crops, like sorghum, millet, cassava and sweet potatoes, instead of maize and beans, which can’t grow in warmer and drier climates.

Mulwa says the health ministries should introduce mobile clinics and home-based care services to reach the most vulnerable women in need of family planning services, who often lack time to visit the health institutions.

Ndeti says that her organization has initiated a program supported by the World Food Program to distribute food to locals in Kitui, a rural town east of Nairobi.

“We are also training communities on making energy-saving cooking stoves so that people desist from burning charcoal,” Ndeti says. “They are also involved in tree planting and gabion construction to guard against soil erosion.”

Ndeti is also a member of the Kenya Climate Change Working Group, formed in 2009 by members of various civil society organizations and donor partners to confront the causes and effects of climate change. She says the group has drafted a policy on mitigating the impacts of climate change that will soon be submitted for consideration.

Ayisi says the demand for reproductive health services is high in Nairobi, especially in slum areas. He says that city hall has made great progress in the provision of family planning and reproductive health services.

“We are addressing this by ensuring there are adequate reproductive health services in the entire country and especially in Nairobi,” he says. “By providing these services, we ensure there is a reduction in cases of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Ayisi says that, together with the United Nations Environment Program, the City Council of Nairobi is decommissioning the Dandora dumpsite, which is an unrestricted dumping site in a Nairobi suburb that contains many hazardous materials, such as lead, mercury, and organic air and soil pollutants.

Other interventions include setting up clinics to screen people with nutrition-related health issues, such as diabetes and hypertension, in clinics throughout Nairobi. Ayisi says there is a need to strengthen the provision of health, educational, social and cultural services to address the adverse effects of climate change on Kenyans’ health.

Alice Kaudia, secretary of environment, said in February that the ministry had developed a National Climate Change Response Strategy to strengthen nationwide actions toward climate change adaptation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The strategy, published in April 2010, estimates that programs will be implemented during the next 20 years at an average annual cost of 235.83 billion shillings, $2.6 billion USD.

One of the strategy’s main actions is planting trees and and conserving existing forests, aiming to grow 7.6 billion trees by 2030. This is geared at capturing carbon, protecting water catchment areas and preventing land degradation.

Other interventions include the promotion of low-cost public transport modes and appropriate use of biotechnologies to increase food production while simultaneously limiting greenhouse gas emissions and properly managing agricultural waste.

She said the ministry was also implementing the Africa Adaptation Program, which features innovative approaches to climate change adaptation, with funding from the Japanese government through the United Nations Development Program.

“If we don’t adapt, I think we are just beginning to see the effects of climate change on agriculture and families, including food shortages and malnutrition,” Mulwa says.