Saturday, May 25, 2024

Too Hot to Withstand- The Kenyan Story of Prolonged Drought


Kenya is a drought-prone country, primarily because of its peculiar eco-climatic conditions. Although dissected by the equator in its southern hemisphere, Kenya contains only a few pockets of high and regular rainfall. 80 percent of the land cover is Arid and semi-arid (ASALs). Annual rainfall in these areas varies from 200-500 mm. Periodical droughts dominate the climate system in the area.

Communities living in these ASALs have a good understanding of drought and have developed techniques to characterize major events. Research by Oxfam, reveals that the Turkana, a nomadic community in northwestern Kenya, has for the longest time adapted to the effects of drought.

Drought is one of the hurdles that may prevent Kenya from achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs), especially those related to poverty, food security and education as well as environmental sustainability (SDG No. 1, 2, 3 respectively). While geography and climate largely explain Kenya’s exposure to drought, the root cause of the country’s vulnerability is its dependence on rainfall for its economic and social development. Agriculture- the backbone of the economy- is almost entirely rain-fed. Most water for human consumption and other uses is derived from rivers and streams whose recharge is dependent on rainfall.

Kenya’s per capita water availability -684 cubic meters- is one of the lowest in Africa. The situation is expected to get worse due to exponential population growth and rampant effects of climate change. Access to clean water is already a problem in many areas including the capital-Nairobi. However, the greater concern is that the Kenyan economy runs on hydropower and lack of water could reduce development hence lowering the country’s GDP.

The impact of climate-related disasters varies across different Kenyan communities. The most vulnerable are the rural poor who depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihood.

Recurrent droughts in Kenya have accelerated poverty and food insecurity among dryland communities. As a result, a range of social problems- dismantling of family ties, child abandonment, and school dropout-have increased tremendously. These problems have far-reaching implications of the country’s development. Effect of drought on the environment cannot be over-emphasized. Desertification and loss of biological diversity are some of the challenges of the 21st century, and Kenya is not spared by these phenomena.

Figure 2Livestock die because of prolonged droughts in Kenya| Photo source:

Communities living in drought prone areas such as drylands in the Northern part of Kenya, are greatly impacted by these climatic hazards. Loss of both human and animal life, food insecurity, poverty and poor sanitation are just some of the most experienced effects of this menace.

Adaptation is a long-term process that entails socioeconomic and institutional adjustments to sustain livelihoods in a changing environment. Pastoralists have traditionally relied on strategic movement of livestock to manage pasture and water resources and splitting of stock among relatives and friends in various places. They introduce new livestock species (for example goats) that are more adapted to drought and practice opportunistic cultivation to adapt to changes. Other options include small trade, handicraft and migration to more favorable areas.

The crisis in the country is prevailing in the Northern Kenya and communities are faced with a new situation that they cannot cope with. The adaptation measures are short-lived and not sustainable. Drought on the other hand are becoming more and more frequent. Victims have no time to recover hence become more vulnerable.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that Kenya’s dryland will be even drier in the coming years. It further states that the ASAL population is increasing both due to natural growth and immigration from other counties. The last census found that almost 10 million people inhabit the area- a quarter of Kenya’s population. This only means two things: A higher number of people are being exposed to climatic risks; increased competition for scarce resources accelerates environmental degradation, which in turn increases the communities’ vulnerability to drought.

Most people view drought as an event rather than a process, which explains how international community responds – distributing relief food to stricken communities. What we do not know is that this response mechanism is not sustainable. It tends to keep the affected community in a state of absolute dependency and utilization of more resources without really solving the real problem. A report by Red-Cross indicates that during the 2000/2001 fiscal year, Kenya spent 140 million dollars on relief food. It is argued that with a quarter of this amount, the country could have put in place much more sustainable systems to address the long-term food insecurity in ASALs.

Nevertheless, there is something quite disturbing with the country’s leadership when it comes to tackling drought. The famine in 2005 was a crisis that needed to be addressed urgently yet most leaders prioritized a referendum to adapt a new constitution which was later rejected by the population. After months of campaign and ignorance of the real issue, over two and half million people were in need of food. Had it not been the efforts of some casualties and compelling media reports for the Kenyan authorities to declare a national disaster, most people would have lost their lives during the process. Thanks to the generosity of the Kenyan population and international fraternity, a major humanitarian crisis was averted.

According to Meteorological department, Kenya will suffer intense and frequent droughts in the future. This will affect many of the country’s development aspirations. The war against drought need to be fought on several fronts. Eradication of famine and malnutrition in the drylands should be given priority.

Providing ASALs with basic infrastructure- roads, water, and education and health amenities- is paramount. It is both humanitarian and a matter of equity and justice.




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