Prolonged drought is pushing Kenya pastoralists to the brink. Without water points like this, many more animals would die. Photo: Fredrik Lerneryd / IRIN

By Anthony Morland
16 October 2017

(IRIN) – Even at the best of times, the people of Turkana live on the edge. Almost all of the 1.3 million inhabitants of this arid county in northwest Kenya endure extreme poverty.

Malnutrition rates are among the highest in the country. Since much of the land here is unsuitable for agriculture, most of the population raises livestock, herding animals long distances to find good pasture and plentiful water.

These days, both resources are in catastrophically short supply. Long dry spells and occasional droughts have always been part of the rhythm of pastoralism here, but Turkana, like much of east Africa, is currently nine months into one of severest droughts in living memory.

In February, when 23 of the country’s 47 counties were affected, and after the number of food insecure people had more than doubled, from 1.3 million to 2.7 million, the Kenyan government declared a national drought emergency.

Situation is worse

Since then, the situation has worsened considerably. The annual long rains, which usually fall between March and May, ended early. It was the third successive poor or failed rainy season.

By August the number of food insecure Kenyans those lacking access to food sufficient to live a healthy life had risen to 3.4 million. According to a flash appeal published in early September by OCHA, the UNs humanitarian aid coordination body, half a million Kenyans fall into the category of emergency food insecurity.

In Turkana, very critical rates of global acute malnutrition (one of the key indicators of humanitarian crises) of up to 37% or above have been recorded in some areas more than double the emergency threshold of 15%. This is largely a result of higher food prices and a reduction in milk and food supplies.

Turkana is the epicentre of the drought, Chris Ajele, director of the countys ministry of pastoral economy, told IRIN in late September in Lodwar, the county capital.

The drought has rendered some families destitute, he said. In Turkana, the economy revolves around pastoralism, he explained. People attain their daily requirements through the sale and consumption of livestock.

In arid counties like Turkana livestock usually accounts for some 80% of a household’s income through sales of animals and milk. Livestock also represents a considerable store of wealth: Many herders with few other possessions aside from a wooden stool, a knife, and some cooking utensils own 100 or more goats and sheep, each worth around $60. Camels are worth more than 10 times as much.

500,000 head of livestock dead

We have lost about half a million head of livestock [in Turkana] mostly sheep and goats, as well as cattle and some camels, Ajele said. High rates of livestock death have also been recorded in the counties of Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit, and Samburu.

This is mainly because the animals don’t have enough to eat. According to a chart complied by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, things are only going to get worse in the months to come: In the map for November 2017, almost the entire country is shaded red, indicating extreme vegetation deficit. Just last year, foraging conditions in most of the country were either normal or very good.

Forage Index map for Kenya, 2000-2016. Graphic: FAO

And the longer a drought lasts, especially when coupled with over-grazing, the greater the risk that subsequent growth and reproduction of the grasses eaten by livestock will be compromised. There is strong correlation between foraging conditions and levels of human malnutrition.

“Drought is a part of life for pastoralists, but whereas they used to happen every 10 years, now, because of climate change, the gap is narrowing and they are becoming unpredictable”, said Josephat Lotwel, who works on drought response in Turkana for the National Disaster Management Authority. The forecast is that this drought will continue, malnutrition will increase, and more animals will die.

Pastoralism will be finished

All the pastoralists IRIN met in Turkana said most of their herds had perished as a result of the drought.

“200 of my goats died”, said Joseph Lopido at a livestock market in the small town of Kerio. “I used to be a man. Now I live like a dog because I am poor.”

Lopido said everyone in the community was affected because getting enough food to survive was a real problem.

“Some of my family eat wild fruit to survive and sometimes it can cause health problems”, he said. “The only thing that helps us is rain. When it rains, the grass grows and the goats graze. How can we survive without rain?”

Lopido had come to the market hoping to sell his two remaining goats, but the prices he was offered were so low he decided to hang on to them.

According to OCHA, average prices of livestock in Kenya have declined by up to 40%, and the combination of low household incomes and high staple food prices has significantly reduced the livestock-to-cereals terms of trade. In other words, goats, sheep, and cows are worth far less maize than they used to be.

On the road to Kerio, camel herder Ebei Lotubwa was trying to flag down cars, waving a yellow plastic cooking oil bottle cut off at the top to serve as a jug he was desperate for water.

“This is the worst drought. There is no grass. It did rain last month, but they were only showers”, he said, explaining that 16 of his camels animals renowned for their ability to survive for months without drinking had died during this drought.

“To find water for our animals, sometimes we have to walk for 30 kilometres. That’s why we beg water from passing cars. Not everyone stops.

“When there is no rain, we get no milk from the camels.”

Another herder, Peter Okapelo, said 100 of his sheep and goats had died, leaving him with 20. “The only way for me to get more is for them to breed. But if this drought continues, these 20 will also die. I don’t know what I will do then.”

Asked about the long-term future, he said: “I think pastoralism will be finished because of the droughts. All the animals are dying.” [more]

In This Part Of Kenya 1.3 Million Endure Poverty, Now Worst Drought In Living Memory Pushes More To The Brink

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