Horn of Africa: Voices from the frontlines of El Niño and climate change

In this two-part blog, young voices from Kenya share their struggle and hopes, as the devastating drought pervading the Horn of Africa was followed by unusually heavy rains, in a world that is warmer now than any time in recorded history.

Kay Seven, a performing artist from the Kajiado County, not far from the Tanzanian border, describes some of the effects of the prolonged drought in his community.

In the second piece, Unelker Maoga shares a personal account of the painful impact of the drought in Kenya.

Their words remind us of the importance of standing shoulder to shoulder with those affected by effects of climate change in Kenya, East Africa and many parts across the world. Although they are struggling to survive, many of them have refused to lose hope and are building stronger and resilient communities that are capable of ensuring food security for all and restoring an ecosystem life free from droughts and famine.

Frontline communities believe that collective, bolder and continuous climate action will ultimately see us through the crisis.

I. Kajiado Residents vs. El Niño
By Kay Seven

“We are losing young lives due to pest diseases, malnutrition and famine. Our food security is more and more threatened while our economy is severely affected. Worse, the long periods of drought have caused repeated conflicts between farmers and pastoralists fighting for the scarce resources.”

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Kenya is a drought-prone country, primarily because of its peculiar eco-climatic conditions. Rainfall patterns, especially rain failure or erratic rainfall are frequently the cause of natural disasters, where rural livelihoods continuously struggle to adapt.

Though not located in the north-eastern part, usually the most impacted by drought and flooding, Kajiado County has suffered this year above-average rainfall from El Niño phenomenon. After critical dry conditions, we have started experiencing rainfall in our district. With enhanced rainfall, we are expecting our crops to grow well. However, we are concerned that too much rainfall can cause devastating damages to our crops.

Last year, Kenya’s meteorological department warned that parts of the East African country may see above-average rainfall from El Niño during the October-to-December rainy season. The heavy rains were detrimental for flood-prone areas and coastal lowlands but in a certain way helpful for parched farmland and pastoral communities west of the country.

East Africans and large communities across the Horn of Africa have already suffered this year from torrential rains and droughts, which experts said could be linked to the evolving El Niño. Meanwhile, floods in northwestern Tanzania killed dozens and left hundreds homeless. The severe weather also killed livestock and destroyed crops of maize and cotton.

Some communities in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Tanzania and Somalia are still recovering from previous El Niño events; particularly the one of 1997-1998 which left victims estimated at 2,000 people and triggered widespread animal disease outbreaks. The Horn of Africa was also hit by a severe drought in 2011-2012 which led to dire food insecurity that threatened the livelihoods of over 10 million people. An estimated 260,000 people, half of them children, died from famine in Somalia, which was one of the worst-affected areas.

In a region that has been regularly exposed to effects of extreme weather events and is experiencing El Niño in a more frequent way, it is imperative for locals to get adequately prepared in order to increase their resilience capacity. It is a matter of survival for about 80% of the populations made of farmers and pastoralists communities whose well-being and income largely depend on the stability or not of the climatic patterns.

In the midst of the crisis, the local government has come up with a series of strategies to curb drought effects and support the most affected communities. Those strategies include a food storage programme in counties, the formation of small groups called Sacco (a framework where farmers are exposed to farming education and training), increased modern irrigation and reforestation programmes.

While these efforts have not yet produced tangible results, communities do not lose hope. They believe in the action and solidarity spirits from bottom up to face such disasters and build stronger and resilient communities that are capable of ensuring food security for all and restoring an ecosystem life free from droughts and famine. Though the challenge is still big, the Kajiado community is determined to embrace renewable energy and resist the development of fossil fuels while strengthening its disaster preparedness. In the words of another Kay Seven song:

“We have a responsibility to Ensure Whoever Gets in The womb next Gets a better place to spend the rest of His Or Her life When they are born. We Can ensure Decline in Mortality rate Due to famine, flooding or any Climatic deserters by becoming responsible in our communities. Let’s join hands let’s do this…if we join hands we can do this.

Mwenda tezi na Omo,Marejeo ni Ghamani (in Swahili, meaning ‘we can run as much as we can from our problems but we will always go back because we didn’t take time to solve them’).”

II. When the climate crisis leaves millions suffering
By Unelker Maoga

“Kenya has been forced to redefine water as a scarce commodity rather than a basic need. What scares the most out of and me other fellow citizens is our inability to solve the situation. To a large extent, the power to mitigate climate change does not lie in our hands.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 9.09.39 PMFor the past few decades Kenyans have been longing for change, change in government practices, change in development strategies, change in national issues. Now, our country is experiencing a different kind of change in the near horizon. Drastic, unexpected change; change we were not looking for: climate change.

Today, I and many in Kenya have become familiar with newspaper headlines that read: ‘Starvation Claims 14 lives’; the Governor of Samburu declared a state of emergency as 60% of the locals face food insecurity. His exact words were: ‘We will not survive this drought’.

For the first time in history the southern Voi River, located in Voi County, has dried up. Locals have been unable to water their gardens to the point that even the hope of a meal is now non-existent. Appeals to the national government to help address the situation have been made. In the meantime, farmers are reaping losses while pastoralists watch their cattle die.

I grew up in Kisii County, in the western part of Kenya. This region contributes largely to Kenya’s fruit basket, but we too have noticed the absence of rainfall. In the 1970s my family built a dam within the land my grandfather owned. The dam has been there since I can remember, but in the last two years weather patterns across the country have taught our family not to take this reservoir for granted. As we experience the second round of drying up, the future remains uncertain.

Kenya has been forced to redefine water as a scarce commodity rather than a basic need. What scares the most out of and me other fellow citizens is our inability to solve the situation. To a large extent, the power to mitigate climate change does not lie in our hands.

The entire population of Ajawa, in northern Kenya, spends most of their day worrying about water supplies rather than focusing on development issues. Nothing else seems to matter except that very “basic need” we call water. For hours and kilometres on end, members of the community walk to the nearest borehole, then descend 30 meters into a cave-like well to fetch water for their cattle before the break of dawn. That well appears to be the only source of survival. Others prefer to keep away from the well, having been attacked by wild animals when trying to reach it. There have also been cases of women having miscarriages because of the long distances they are forced to walk in order to fetch water.

Our county governments, especially in Wajir, have heard the cry of pastoralists and funded veterinary offices to help them manage hundreds of thousands of livestock in order to minimise the drought-related deaths. Though helpful, these measures seem to be too little and too late, as the sun continues to scorch a large percent of Kenya.

The Kenyan economy loses 14 billion Kenyan Shillings to drought every year, the country has lost 3% of its GDP in 2015 alone. More than 10 million people are suffering from the effects of famine and the situation is set to worsen, thousands of lives have been lost and still no solutions have been found. Millions from the Horn of Africa have been migrating south, headed to our country in order to flee severe famine yet we too are experiencing the same conditions they seek to avoid.

As the reality of climate change dawns on us, we watched the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris hoping that the negotiations would be fruitful. We have heard world leaders commend the collective decision made by 195 countries to reduce global emissions in order to not only avoid the 2 ºC warming but pledging to a 1.5 degrees limit! Even as we begin, we dare to hope that this path will one day lead to the end of the combustion of fossil fuels. And while we in the Horn of Africa continue our journey in search of a stream of water and look to the skies for long awaited rains, our plea is that the words of the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon will never be forgotten: “… the time has come to acknowledge that national interests are best resolved by acting in the global interest and solidarity. Nature is sending urgent signals, peoples and countries are threatened as never before… We need to protect the planet that sustains us, for that we need all our hands on deck.”

 

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