From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Fri Sep 04 2009 - 06:56:38 EDT
'Climate change is here, it is a reality'
As one devastating drought follows another, the future is bleak for millions
in east Africa. John Vidal reports from Moyale, Kenya
* <http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/johnvidal> John Vidal
* <http://www.guardian.co.uk> guardian.co.uk,
* 4th September, 2009 22.44 BST
We met Isaac and Abdi, Alima and Muslima last week in the bone-dry, stony
land close to the Ethiopia- <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/kenya> Kenya
border. They were with five nomad families who have watched all their
animals die of star vation this year in a deep
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/drought> drought, and who have now
decided their days of herding cattle are over.
After three years of disastrous rains, the families from the Borana tribe,
who by custom travel thousands of miles a year in search of
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/water> water and pasture, have
unanimously decided to settle down. Back in April, they packed up their
pots, pans and meagre belongings, deserted their mud and thatch homes at
Bute and set off on their last trek, to Yaeblo, a village of near-destitute
charcoal makers that has sprung up on the side of a dirt road near Moyale.
Now they live in temporary "benders" - shelters made from branches covered
with plastic sheeting. They look like survivors from an earthquake or a
flood, but in fact these are some of the world's first climate-change
For all their deep pride in owning and tending animals in a harsh land,
these deeply conservative people expressed no regrets about giving up
centuries of traditional life when we spoke to them. Indeed, they seemed
relieved: "This will be a much better life," said Isaac, a tribal leader in
his 40s. "We will make charcoal and sell firewood. Our children will go to
the army or become traders. We do not expect to ever go back to animals."
They are not alone. Droughts have affected millions in a vast area
stretching across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Chad, and into
Burkina Faso and Mali, and tens of thousands of nomadic herders have had to
give up their animals. "[This recent drought] was the worst thing that had
ever happened to us," said Alima, 24. "The whole land is drying up. We had
nothing, not even drinking water. All our cattle died and we became
hopeless. It had never happened before. So we have decided to live in one
place, to change our lives and to educate our children."
Kenya, a land more than twice the size of Britain, is everywhere parched.
Whole towns such as Moyale with more than 10,000 people are now desperate
for water. The huge public reservoir in this regional centre has been empty
for months and, according to Molu Duka Sora, local director of the
government's Arid Lands programme, all the major boreholes in the vast
semi-desert area are failing one by one. Earlier this year, more than 50
people died of cholera in Moyale. It is widely believed that it came from
animals and humans sharing ever scarcer water.
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/food> Food prices have doubled
across Kenya. A 20-litre jerrycan of poor quality water has quadrupled in
price. Big game is dying in large numbers in national parks, and electricity
has had to be rationed, affecting petrol and food supplies. For the first
time in generations there are cows on the streets of Nairobi as nomads like
Isaac come to the suburbs with their herds to feed on the verges of roads.
Violence has increased around the country as people go hungry.
"The scarcity of water is becoming a nightmare. Rivers are drying up, and
the way temperatures are changing we are likely to get into more problems,"
said Professor Richard Odingo, the Kenyan vice-chair of the UN's
Intergovernmental Panel on
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/climate-change> Climate Change
"We passed emergency levels months ago," said Yves Horent, a European
commission humanitarian officer in Nairobi. "Some families have had no crops
in nearly seven years. People are trying to adapt but the nomads know they
are in trouble."
Many people, in Kenya and elsewhere, cannot understand the scale and speed
of what is happening. The east African country is on the equator, and has
always experienced severe droughts and scorching temperatures. Nearly 80% of
the land is officially classed as arid, and people have adapted over
centuries to living with little water.
There are those who think this drought will finish in October with the
coming of the long rains and everything will go back to normal.
Well, it may not. What has happened this year, says Leina Mpoke, a Maasai
vet who now works as a climate change adviser with Ireland-based charity
Concern Worldwide, is the latest of many interwoven ecological disasters
which have resulted from deforestation, over-grazing, the extraction of far
too much water, and massive population growth.
"In the past we used to have regular 10-year climatic cycles which were
always followed by a major drought. In the 1970s we started having droughts
every seven years; in the 1980s they came about every five years and in the
1990s we were getting droughts and dry spells almost every two or three
years. Since 2000 we have had three major droughts and several dry spells.
Now they are coming almost every year, right across the country," said
He reeled off the signs of climate change he and others have observed, all
of which are confirmed by the Kenyan meteorological office and local
governments. "The frequency of heatwaves is increasing. Temperatures are
generally more extreme, water is evaporating faster, and the wells are
drying. Larger areas are being affected by droughts, and flooding is now
"We are seeing that the seasons have changed. The cold months used to be
only in June and July but now they start earlier and last longer. We have
more unpredictable, extreme weather. It is hotter than it used to be and it
stays hotter for longer. The rain has become more sporadic. It comes at
different times of the year now and farmers cannot tell when to plant. There
are more epidemics for people and animals."
'We have to change'
Mpoke said he did not understand how people in rich countries failed to
understand the scale or urgency of the problem emerging in places such as
Kenya. "Climate change is here. It's a reality. It's not in the imagination
or a vision of the future. [And] climate change adds to the existing
problems. It makes everything more complex. It's here now and we have to
The current drought is big, but the nomads and western charities helping
people adapt say the problem is not the extreme lack of water so much as the
fact that the land, the people and the animals have no time to recover from
one drought to the next. "People now see that these droughts are coming more
and more frequently. They know that they cannot restock. Breeding animals
takes time. It take several years to recover. One major drought every 10
years is not a problem. But one good rainy season is not enough," said
Nor are traditional ways of predicting and adapting to drought much use. In
the past, said Ibrahim Adan, director of Moyale-based development group
Cifa, nomads would look for signs of coming drought or rain in the stars, in
the entrails of slaughtered animals or in minute changes in vegetation.
"When drought came, elders would be sent miles away to negotiate grazing
rights in places not so seriously hit, and cattle would be sent to relatives
in distant communities. People would reduce the size of their herds, selling
some and slaughtering the best to preserve the best meat to see them through
the hard times. None of that is working now."
Francis Murambi, a development worker in Moyale, said: "The land has changed
a lot. Only 60 years ago, the land around Moyale was savannah with plenty of
grass, big trees and elephants, lions and rhino." Today the grasses have all
but gone, taken over by brush. Because there are fewer pastures, they are
more heavily used. It's a vicious circle. In the past, a nomadic family
could live on a few cows which would provide more than enough milk and food.
Now the pasture is so poor that those who still herd cattle need more
animals to survive. But having more cattle further degrades the soil. The
environment can support fewer and fewer people, but the population has
"[Before] we did not need money. The pasture was good, the milk was good,
and you could produce butter. Now it is poor, it is not possible," said
Gurache Kate, a chief in Ossang Odana village near the Ethiopian border.
"Yesterday I had a phone call from the man we sent our cattle away with. He
is 250 miles away and he said they were all dying."
These shifts driven by climate change are bringing profound changes. Ibrahim
Adan said: "The cow has always been your bank. Being a Borana means you must
keep livestock. It's part of your identity and destiny. It gives you status.
Traditionally livestock was central to life. The old people saw cattle as
the centre of their culture. Pride, love and attachment to cattle was all
celebrated in song. My father would never sell cattle. They were an
extension of himself."
Now, for people like Isaac and Abdi, Alima and Muslima, all that is gone,
and with it independence and self-sufficiency. "The money economy is
creeping in, as is education and the settled life," said Adan. "Young people
see the cow now as more of an economic necessity rather than the core of
The great unspoken fear among scientists and governments is that the present
cycle of droughts continues and worsens, making the land uninhabitable.
"This isn't something that will just affect Kenya. What is certain is that
if climate change sets in and drought remains a frequent visitor, there will
be far fewer people on the land in 20 years," said Adan. "The nomad will not
go. But his life will be very different."
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