Reversal of fortune

10 January 2011 | News story

The dry rangelands of Northern Kenya are inhabited mainly by pastoralists—people who derive a living from raising livestock and continually move in search of water and pasture. Until recently, pastoralists in this region have been able to adapt to their highly variable conditions, supplying most of Kenya’s meat, milk, hides and skins.

But in recent years, the rangelands have been plagued by recurrent drought, flash floods, violent conflicts and disease outbreaks. Drought is the most serious as it usually affects the entire region. In the last 20 years, pastoralists have lost more than half of their stock during drought periods and Kenya is currently facing a severe drought that is leaving millions of people hungry. The Kenyan government estimates the number of people in need of food relief to be about 10 million; at least 3 million of these are pastoralists in the North.

Amid the concerns about the current drought, many people forget that only a few months ago, parts of Northern Kenya suffered from flooding. Climate change may be affecting rainfall patterns in the region but other factors are contributing to this cycle of flood and drought. The health of the rangelands has deteriorated through modern agricultural methods. Vegetation loss contributes to flash flooding and stops rainwater penetrating the soil and replenishing the water table, leading to drought even in years when rainfall is sufficient.

Halakhe D. Waqo, Global Coordinator of IUCN’s World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP) explains that although mobile pastoralism is the most viable form of production and land use in most of the world’s fragile drylands, pastoralists are increasingly marginalised, facing a range of legal, economic, social and political barriers to their way of life. Pastoralists’ ability to adapt to changing conditions is being eroded and they are losing control over their resources. The latest research on the positive influence of pastoralism on dryland ecosystems is not being communicated effectively to decision makers.

In Kenya, despite emergency supplies in some areas, the food security of vulnerable populations in mostly rural regions is expected to remain critical in the foreseeable future. To reverse this situation, policies and development plans need to respond to the root causes of drought and recognise that it is not simply a meterological event.

“The current drought in Northern Kenya has its roots in long term rangelands degradation and erosion of natural resource management capacity, both of which are closely related,” says Halakhe. “Communities have subtle knowledge and ways of managing their physical and social environments. Their capacity to govern themselves needs to be re-legitimised and supported by government.”

Drylands make up more than 80% of Kenya and support around three million pastoralists. They support 80% of Kenya’s eco-tourism industry and the country earns about US$ 850 million a year from tourism, with many of the iconic game parks such as Maasai Mara, Amboseli and Samburu situated in pastoral areas.

WISP is working with communities and government agencies in Northern Kenya to build capacity among pastoralists and to learn how they monitor their rangelands and respond to changes. It has carried out numerous studies that merge experience on the ground with the latest scientific knowledge.