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November 02, 2009

Devastating drought alters life for Kenya nomads

by Katharine Houreld

When 64-year-old Jimale Irobe was a young man, he guided his herds of cows and camels through knee-high grass. These days the scrubby blades barely reach his ankles even in the rainy season, and there is never enough grass to go around. The cattle cannot feed, and the nomadic families that depend on them for milk and meat cannot survive.

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So Irobe scrapes out a living by selling charcoal made from burning the trees in the fields where his father's herds once grazed. "Now there are many people and the rains are not coming," said Irobe, whose wisps of beard can't conceal gaunt cheeks.

The traditional way of life for Kenya's roughly three million nomads is rapidly giving way under the pressures of increasingly severe and frequent droughts, coupled with a rapidly rising population. In one particularly drought-prone district in Kenya, up to a third of the herdsmen have had to settle permanantly because they have lost so many animals.

As they gather in one place, they strip the nearby land of trees and grass to make houses. Their few remaining animals consume the last blades of grass. Eventually, as has happened in the northern village of Dela, there is just a cluster of tired, hungry people in the sand waiting for aid.

Instead of their traditional grassy huts among thorn bushes and the spires of termite mounds, the nomads live in makeshift settlements where the only shelter is domes of twigs covered in scraps of cloth and plastic. Instead of roasting a goat by the campfire, more and more of them rely on handouts from foreign charities.

"Write my name down," 70-year-old Halima Haroun implored a journalist in the northern Kenyan town of Dela, thinking registration for aid was taking place. She pinched a withered arm to show how thin she is.

Arid northern Kenya has always suffered cyclical droughts, but Dela residents say the dry spells are becoming longer and more frequent. A 2006 study by Christian Aid in neighboring Mandera district found that droughts had increased fourfold in the last 25 years. At the same time, the region's population has increased fivefold since the 1960s.

The report referred to the nomads as "climate change canaries," noting their existence in some of the world's harshest and driest terrain makes them the group most immediately vulnerable to small fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. A third of pastoralists in the Mandera region had already lost their herds and had moved to settlements, the report said.

More frequent droughts mean families have less time to recover and restock herds. Each time the rains fail, the nomads slide a little further into poverty. Hunger and despair finally drive them to towns like Dela.

"It's got to the point where the rains can stabilize the situation, but they don't last long enough to provide a recovery," said Martin Karimi from the European Commission's aid arm, which is developing projects to help villages store water. "Also, when rain does fall, it tends to be over shorter periods and more intense."

The sandy soil doesn't absorb the intense rainfall, so it just sits on the ground before evaporating.

Aid agency Oxfam says 23 million people need food aid this year after the drought that swept across eastern Africa and the Horn region. Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have been particularly hard hit.

And a September report by the International Food Policy Research Institute predicted that the worldwide effects of climate change will lead to twenty-five million additional children becoming malnourished by 2050.

The result will be more suffering for women like Ladhan Ali, who came to Dela seeking food after most of her animals died. She's buried seven of her nine children over the years, she says, staring at the ground. Without a doctor, she cannot tell exactly what each one died of, but for most she puts it down to a mixture of weakness, illness and hunger. Except for the last boy. Unused to living in town, he ran across the road and was hit by a car.

Like most of the roughly 3,000 settlers living in Dela, she blames several factors for her abandonment of nomadic life: droughts; a growing population that puts more pressure on grass and water; and the degradation of the land as new settlements sprawl outward. "Before when the pasture was low, we'd go somewhere else," she said. "But now there are settlements everywhere, so where do we go?"

The small villages are sprouting up all along the rutted roads of Kenya's northeastern province, a vast poverty-stricken region long neglected by the central government. During the day, the drab colors of the huts blend into the bush, but in the evening clusters of night fires glimmer through the thorns.

Dela itself did not exist fifteen years ago. Now its population swells with each drought, said District Commissioner Dima Omar. As the families gather, the concentration of animals in one place overgrazes the land.

"Once their animals die they don't have any other resources except for maybe the trees around them," Omar said. "We try to educate people not to cut down the trees and to use old wood, but it is hard."

Climate change has been cited as a contributing factor to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, where nomads and farmers have clashed over shrinking grazing grounds. It's blamed for exacerbating tensions among tribes in Uganda, northern Kenya, and Ethiopia, where watering holes are drying up and lands that were once fertile now struggle to produce crops.

This month, African leaders agreed to seek $65 billion from the developed world to mitigate the effect of carbon emissions. They will present the demand at a global summit on climate change in Copenhagen in December.

But James Shikwati, a leading Kenyan economist, said more research was needed to separate the effects of climate change from issues like population growth, poor farming practices and cyclical weather patterns. "We need to be extremely careful not to lump all the problems together," he said.

If drought is forcing the nomads into towns, it is partly the desire to educate their children that keeps them there.

None of Dela's 210 students want to go back to the nomadic life, said teacher Calvin Mobisa. They want to be vets, doctors, scientists and pilots, and go to the places newspapers talk about. Drought is severing a generation of younger nomads from their traditions, and the harsh life their parents yearn for holds little appeal.

"You can do more things now than our parents could," said 15-year-old Ali Noor, whose keeps his shiny school shoes scrupulously clean of the ever-present dust. "You don't have to just live in the bush."

US News and World Report


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