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Climate change destroys the livelihoods of Kenyan pastoralists

Amid acute and persistent drought, pastoralists in Northern Kenya—and other arid regions of Africa—are in dire straits and hinge hope on potential compensation for loss and damage.

Climate change is putting increasing pressure on the Tana Delta’s residents and their surrounding ecosystems, with farmers and herders clashing as they vie for access to land and pasture. Photo: UNEP/Lisa Murray

The adverse effects of climate change on human societies and the natural environment are unprecedented. Kenyan pastoralist Job Metuy knows this firsthand. At COP27, he described the pain and devastation of the ongoing drought on pastoralism.

Stench of Death A resident of Torosei in Kenya’s Kajiado County, Mr. Metuy narrated the anguish of watching 20 of his dairy cows collapse and die from unrelenting heat this past year. He detailed how he covered his nose from the odor of rotting bovine as he dragged their withered corpses to the heaps of other dead livestock that had succumbed to drought.

He said he was battling to save his remaining cattle. “The cows I have left are now like skeletons. They drag themselves through the field, waiting to die.”

Believing the drought would not end in time to save his cows, Mr. Metuy led them across international borders in search of fresh pastures and water in neighbouring Tanzania. But other pastoralists from East Africa had already migrated to Tanzania with their livestock, depleting the pastures and water in that country. With his cows thinner, weaker and without food and water, Mr. Metuy had no choice but to take them back to Kajiado.

On their way, the cattle could no longer walk, so Mr. Metuy borrowed money and hired a vehicle to transport them. On returning, he learned that fellow pastoralists in Kajiado, Garissa, Turkana, and Isiolo Counties were selling their cows at reduced prices, as low as Kshs 2000 ($20).

"A need exists for rich countries to deliver on commitments to finance activities that reduce climate emergencies and to protect poor people through financial compensation."

COP27 and Kenya In November 2022, all eyes focused on Egypt’s coastal city Sharm el-Sheikh where COP27, dubbed Africa’s COP, took place. The theme of the conference was Delivering for People and the Planet.

The conference drew more than 40,000 participants, including heads of state, climate activists, mayors, civil society representatives, CEOs, ministers and negotiators. At stake were the hopes of people around the world, including over a billion people in Africa, a continent disproportionately besieged by the climate crisis.

Kenya’s President William Ruto informed the conference participants of the dire drought in his country. Other Kenyans shared heart-breaking stories of stress and suffering from four brutal seasons of rain failures.

Pastoralism is one of the main economic activities for people in Africa’s arid and semi-arid areas. Practiced by tribesmen for centuries, it is the most viable production system in the drylands. Currently, pastoralism accounts for 90 per cent of youth employment and provides more than 95 per cent of rural family incomes in the drylands of Northern Kenya.

The areas most affected by climate change include Garissa, Isiolo, Kajiado, Turkana, Kitui, Mandera, Marsabit, Laikipia, Samburu, Tana River, and Wajir. The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) refers to these areas as part of the “alarm stage,” meaning they are experiencing the worst kinds of drought emergency.

The State Department of Livestock confirms that Kenya has lost 2.5 million head of livestock and that the remaining 10 million head in the drylands are suffering without pasture and water. Tourism Cabinet Secretary Peninah Malonza says that between February and October 2022, 205 elephants perished because of the ongoing drought in protected areas controlled by the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS).

Kenya also lost 512 gnus, 381 zebras, 12 giraffes and 51 buffalo during the same time in this area, according to Ms. Malonza. No data on the number of deaths is available from the rangeland’s ecosystem where 60 per cent of the wildlife co-exists with the community livestock.

Tackling Climate Change Researchers link the severity and frequency of natural disasters such as droughts, floods, locust invasions and the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change. They estimate the cost of mitigation and adaptation and compensation for loss and damage to be about $580 billion in 2030 and could be as high as $1.8 trillion by 2050.

Even though wealthy nations and their big corporations are largely to blame for the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, African countries, including Kenya, suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. The impact is most severe among poor populations.

Droughts, floods, livestock diseases and armed conflicts are wiping out their livelihoods, underscoring the need for Kenya to help its poorest population adapt by developing sustainable ways of making a living in the drylands.

While the government could engage with rich and powerful nations for assistance in addressing the global crisis, it should prioritize social protections and resilience-building schemes for Kenya’s growing poor population.

Authorities need to mainstream social protections, resilience-building and alternative forms of development interventions for drought emergencies. National and county administrations must mobilize youths from poor communities to implement widespread tree-planting schemes in dryland areas.

"As we look forward to COP28, the expectation is that countries, particularly industrialized countries, fulfill their commitments and accelerate efforts to address loss and damage."

A need exists for rich countries to deliver on commitments to finance activities that reduce climate emergencies and to protect poor people through financial compensation. Still, governments must manage their appetite for taxing income going to poor communities from carbon credits earned through the preservation of rangelands.

Post-COP27, we must put pressure on rich nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions and support low-income populations to strengthen resilience and adaption.

If we do not swiftly address the root cause of climate change, conditions will worsen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report warns of species’ extinction and reduction and irreversible losses of ecosystems and services, including damage and loss to freshwater, land and ocean ecosystems in Africa. It further predicts a reduction in food production and a massive loss of biodiversity, wildlife, livestock and fisheries.

As we look forward to COP28, the expectation is that countries, particularly industrialized countries, fulfill their commitments and accelerate efforts to address loss and damage. The lives and livelihoods of pastoralists in the drylands of Northern Kenya and across Africa depend on what these rich countries—and African governments—do next. Delay could prove deadly.

Jarso Mokku is the CEO of Drylands Learning and Capacity Building Initiative and Secretary to the Pastoralist Parliamentary Group Secretariat based in Nairobi, Kenya.


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