An aid organization will soon pay for donkeys to carry supplies in Dadaab, Kenya, hoping it will make a big difference to people who trekked to the world's biggest refugee camp for food, water and shelter.

CARE is one of many aid agencies working to meet the growing need in Dadaab, a sprawling network of camps near the border with Somalia.

Between 1,200 and 1,300 people are flowing into Dadaab every day, UN agencies estimate. The majority of the refugees arriving at Dadaab are women with small children. 

After screening, the new arrivals get an emergency ration that includes a mat for their tent, cooking utensils and pots, and 21 days worth of basics like corn, soy meal, flour, beans and cooking oil.

But while it may seem like a treasure trove to many who have been struggling to meet basic needs in drought-stricken East Africa, the life-sustaining ration becomes a heavy burden. Aid organizations are delivering food, water and other supplies —  but the distribution process is not without complication, including transportation costs that many incoming refugees can't afford.

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"They get a lot of items to be able to settle, so they cannot carry that amount of food on their own," says Michael Adams, CARE's director of operations for the refugee assistance program in Dadaab.

It's physically impossible for many people, especially for the lone women and children, to carry the huge sacks two or three kilometres to their settlement.

There are rickety donkey-pulled carts available to help them transport the food and supplies, but that kind of assistance comes at a cost.

One driver told CBC the cost to ferry supplies from distribution points to shelters is about 100 shillings for most families, or roughly $1.05 Cdn — a price far out of reach for most of the people who make the journey to the sprawling refugee camp.

That cost means some people have to resort to selling part of their coveted cache of food and supplies just to get it back to their tents.

It's a gap in the system that CARE is working to fill. The aid organization plans on implementing a program where they will pay the local donkey drivers so refugees don't have to sell off any of their new supplies.

"I don't think every system is perfect and I think we need to make sure that we are able to respond to the gaps as they arise, quickly," Adams said.

But other gaps remain at Dadaab, aid agencies say. The camps are already well over capacity, with an estimated 430,000 to 460,000 people sheltering in an area originally designed to accommodate roughly 90,000 people.

Definition of famine

There are three main criteria for a famine to be officially declared by the UN:

  • At least 20 per cent of households must face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope.
  • More than 30 per cent of the population must be suffering from acute malnutrition.
  • Two adults or four children dying of hunger each day for every group of 10,000 people.

Malnutrition is also a major issue, as many people arriving at the camp have walked for days with little or no food.

"For me, it's a picture of desperation," said Lydia Wamala, the World Food Program spokeswoman in Dadaab.

"The last figure that I saw for acute malnutrition was about 30 per cent, on average, all over Dadaab — and that is two times above the emergency threshold, which is 15 per cent."

Some 12.4 million people across Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia are in need of humanitarian assistance, the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs estimates.

Drought conditions and a long-running conflict have created a particularly difficult situation in Somalia, where a famine situation has been declared in five areas of the country.

As many as 3.2 million people in Somalia are in need of "immediate, life-saving assistance," UN agencies say.  

The UN and aid agencies say another $1 billion US is needed to meet the growing humanitarian needs in the area.