BUBISA, KENYA — FROM a low-flying military helicopter, the view of lush green farms in central Kenya slowly gives way to the north's rocky, sandy landscape, scorched by a drought whose victims have been mostly ignored for nearly two years.
"We've lost almost all our livestock - cows, sheep, goats - because of the drought," says Halima Konso, sitting beneath one of the few trees in this tiny hamlet roughly 300 miles north of Nairobi, the capital.
One out of every 25 Kenyans, or nearly 1 million people, mostly northern nomads, needs emergency food aid, according to the United Nations. Relief officials estimate that about 85 percent of the nomads' livestock has died. Some Kenyans have already starved. Malnutrition is running from 10 percent to 40 percent among young children in some of the driest areas.
Yet the two-year drought is only now starting to draw a major response from the Kenyan government and foreign donors:
* The Kenyan Air Force is flying food to the north.
* The Kenyan Army, using rigs paid for by now-discontinued United States military aid to Kenya, has drilled five boreholes for water, including two here in Bubisa.
* International donors have pledged about half the 84,000 tons of food the UN says Kenyan drought victims need this year, though only 25,000 tons are already in Kenya. The European Community has pledged about 30,000 tons; the US has promised 6,000 tons.
Kenya's drought is "clearly the worst in decades," says Roger Simmons, deputy director in Kenya of the US Agency for International Development.
Donors blame the lateness of relief partially on the Kenyan government, which did not appeal for international drought assistance until June 7. But James Simani, a spokesman for the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says the government was still hoping the long spring rains would come.
Very little did. By the time Nairobi made its appeal for assistance, another Kenyan official says, the government had "exhausted" its $300,000 famine-relief fund.
Jacob Akol, spokesman here for the relief organization World Vision, says the government simply "overlooked" the problem in the north. The remote nomadic population "doesn't have a lot of political sway," he says, and the government was preoccupied with pressure for political reforms from other regions.
Relief officials say Kenya's system of monitoring dryness and animal conditions in the north, to get an early warning of approaching famine, failed from neglect and poor management. Further, most international donors acknowledge they were slow to realize that Kenya, which usually exports food, was in trouble.
"Donors were skeptical," says Ketema Yifru, director for Eastern Africa for the UN's World Food Program (WFP). "People take Kenya for a safari land: lovely, beautiful. They can't picture Kenya" in crisis.
Parts of Ethiopia, southern Sudan, and Somalia have also been hit by the drought. Up to 8 million Ethiopians need food aid this year due to war and drought. More than 2,500 people in southeastern Ethiopia have already starved this year, according to the state-run Ethiopian news agency.
Caroll Faubert, UN High Commissioner on Refugees director for Kenya, says 130 people are dying each day in Kenyan refugee camps. Most Ethiopians, Somalis, and Sudanese who have fled war, drought, or both have arrived within the past 18 months.
Poor sanitation and scarcity of water are problems in some camps. Yifru of WPF adds that "about 50 percent" of the estimated 300,000 people in the northern camps are Kenyans.
As drought withered the surrounding areas, increasing numbers of Gabbra tribe members came to Bubisa, setting up their dome-shaped huts of sticks covered with cloth and skins, to be near a borehole drilled years ago.
But that borehole caved in earlier this year. Until the new one is completed, getting water means walking up to 18 miles round trip.
"You leave here at six in the morning and you come back about two or three in the afternoon," says Halima Konso. Carrying a five-gallon jug on your back is "very heavy," she says.
World Vision, which is paying part of the costs of the new borehole here, has been providing limited food to drought victims since April. But people in Bubisa wonder why trucks have been passing by for more than a year carrying food to refugees when they, too, need help.
"They're not happy at all," says Daniel Duba, a teacher at the boarding school here. "They feel they should be assisted first." Mr. Duba says student enrollment has dropped more than 50 percent during the drought, as parents have no more cattle to sell for school fees.
Now residents are reduced to relying on relief, Duba says. "They [were] very independent before."