Thousands of zebra and other herbivores died of starvation, disease and predation, and an untold more animals abandoned the traditional dry-season refuge in search of vegetation. Michael Burnham

By MICHAEL BURNHAM AND NATHANIAL GRONEWOLD of Greenwire
Published: May 4, 2010

NAIROBI, Kenya -- It's the rainy season, but the sun is still baking the Mathare Valley slum.

A half-million people live in this warren of shacks clustered amid 10 square kilometers of the Mathare River.

When the rains fall, drops spill like marbles on corrugated metal roofs. Narrow alleys swell with murky runoff that flows past open doors and raises the risk of cholera and dysentery.

When the rains fail, as they did for most of last year, a liter of clean water can cost more than petroleum. People who cannot buy water from traveling vendors haul it from the river or steal it from the municipal main.

About half of Nairobi's 3.2 million residents live in such areas that lack municipal water and sewer services. …

Equatorial Kenya's long rains typically begin in March and continue through May. June through September marks a comparatively cool and dry spell before rains recommence in October.

Most of Kenya did not get much rain, if any, until the final weeks of 2009.

"When we have had droughts in the past, there has not been a failure of rains for as long," observed Charles Musyoki, a senior scientist with the Kenya Wildlife Service, which manages nearly 10 percent of the land in this Texas-sized nation.

Tree limbs and watering holes withered, contributing to the death of as many as 500 elephants, according to the wildlife service. Migratory animals and livestock competed for pastures, spurring Maasai shepherds to encroach upon Nairobi's green spaces.

Water levels in important rivers dropped, forcing the Kenya Electricity Generating Co. to reduce hydropower production. Nairobi endured inflated water prices, intermittent blackouts and electricity rationing.

Crops failed throughout the country, even in the breadbasket region between Nairobi and Lake Victoria.

Heavy rains that began in 2010 proved just as problematic.

Flooding in low-lying areas of the Great Rift Valley caused farmland destruction, death, displacement and disease in December and January. By February, an estimated 3.8 million Kenyans needed emergency food assistance -- a 32 percent increase over a year, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. …

Historically, East Africa has experienced drought then heavy rains every five to 10 years, caused by a shift in Pacific Ocean winds and currents known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. The cycle appears to be getting more frequent and intense, as droughts have occurred during 10 of the past 20 years.

The seasonal shift between wet and dry months is also becoming more volatile, observed Paul Faeth, president of the Global Water Challenge, a coalition of corporations, nonprofits and government agencies that invests in water and sanitation projects in Kenya and other developing countries.

"What you're seeing is an exploding oscillation -- the droughts are deeper and the rainy times are wetter," Faeth explained. "Within that, you are also seeing more bumping around on an annual basis and that just makes things more difficult to manage."

Kenya's mean annual temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius since 1960, and the number of hot days and nights has increased significantly, according to U.N. data. The changes are consistent with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's global warming models …

The Lake Victoria Basin, which includes Kenya's western and southern neighbors Uganda and Tanzania, is also experiencing rapid and unplanned growth. The basin is the home of 30 million people, about half of them impoverished.

The lake is both the region's main water source and its main waste depository. Nutrient-rich runoff feeds algal blooms that turn large swaths of the 68,000-square-kilometer lake into dead zones devoid of aquatic life. …

As Weather Tracks With Climate Scientists' Grim Forecasts, an African Nation Is Awash in Misery

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