Increasingly severe and unpredictable droughts are forcing pastoralists in northwestern Kenya to travel further and more frequently to find water and grass for their animals - under increasingly dangerous circumstances.
"People have misinterpreted migration to mean aggression," said Pascale Napayok, one of several Ugandan officials attending a recent gathering of Turkana elders convened to address the related issues of cross-border security, pasture and water.
As if to highlight the drought, the meeting, in the border region of Lokiriama, took place next to a sandy river bed where camels drank water drawn from waist-deep holes dug by Turkana girls.
"When we move, we meet enemies," lamented Koloi Ekai, an old man who used to raise livestock until disease and then a flash flood wiped out most of his herd of goats.
"Before, we had rain. We did not have to move so much. Life was comfortable. Now God has become annoyed," he said at his home settlement, a parched area called Mapetao, near the main town in the Turkana region, Lodwar. The principal reason it is safe in Mapetao is because it lacks water or pasture - no resources, no conflict.
"I used to have animals. I used to be a man. Now I am waiting to die," he said.
As in most of the region, the terrain in Mapetao is dusty and stony, dotted with low scrub and the occasional acacia tree. Even these are dwindling as they are turned into charcoal in a desperate bid to raise a few hundred shillings to buy food. Across Turkana, huge sacks of it line roadsides to tempt passing motorists.
Photo: OCHA VMU
Neglected and unsafe
Pastoralist regions in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, where few other economic activities are practised, have long been neglected by their governments, not just in terms of infrastructure such as roads and water, but also of protection. The absence of police partly explains the prevalence of small arms.
"Because of insecurity, even at five years old you learn to use a rifle," said Emmanuel Lukwanok, one of a dozen horn-blowing Turkana youths who, in quasi-military formation and proudly brandishing AK-47s, swept down a hill in the no-man's-land between Kenya and Sudan to greet the fact-finding mission.
"We have guns because of fighting the Toposa," he added, referring to one of the main pastoralist communities across the frontier.
"We have experienced cattle raids many, many times. It is permanent and getting worse, less secure. We have lost a lot of livestock. So we suffer a double onslaught - drought and raids. These days we have to take our animals further for pasture. This is the main reason for conflict," he said. "We cannot give up our guns because then the
Toposa would come and steal our animals."
Asked what he wanted from his government, Lukwanok's list was short: "Bullets and food."
A report by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research organisation, spells out the challenges facing pastoralists in this region of Africa: "A lack of basic services, unreliable water supplies, poor leadership, depressed local economies, insufficient responses to drought, widespread poverty and extremely poor health and nutrition.
"As a result, a culture of cattle rustling has flourished, exacerbated by widespread access to and misuse of firearms. Government attempts to 'pacify' these communities have tended to be antagonistic, repressive, uneven, top-down militaristic disarmament operations that have done little to address the root causes of local conflict while failing to provide security for disarmed communities, or to act in the interests of local people."
In Lodwar, a senior official in the local administration conceded there were shortcomings in the protection offered by the state.
"Security-wise, we don't have personnel on the ground" everywhere they were needed, said District Officer Pili Nzungo.
Efforts in 2004 and 2005 to disarm civilians in Turkana failed. "Pastoralists in Uganda, Ethiopia and South Sudan were armed so people said we were exposing them to attack," said Nzungo.
The Kenyan government is now providing weapons and small quantities of ammunition to pastoralist communities, circumventing strict gun laws by making the recipients police reservists.
This policy also offsets another problem facing the regular police - the poor condition of the few roads in pastoral areas. "It's not always easy [for security forces] to help them when they hear of a raid," explained John Nakara of the Riam Riam Peace Network.
Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN
Fill ‘em up – it’s a long way to the next watering hole
According to Riam Riam, insecurity has led thousands of residents in some areas, such as Lomelo division in Turkana South district, where 26 people were killed in clashes in 2006, to flee.
"Nobody lives there. Those people are IDPs [internally displaced people] now," said Riam Riam's project coordinator, Joseph Elim. There had been a major disarmament operation in Turkana South in 1979 that left the population vulnerable to those still carrying arms, he said.
Another trigger of insecurity in Turkana, according to Elim, was the proliferation of political boundaries: what used to be a single district is now divided into six. While the government says the new districts brings additional services to locals, critics argue that such boundaries boost conflict by instilling a sense of them-and-us, of ownership and incursion, among communities that previously regarded pastureland and water points as shared resources.
Many residents of Kenya's dry lands are dropping out of animal raising altogether.
"Recent recurrent drought, land fragmentation and other drivers of change are now stretching pastoralists' coping strategies to breaking point. Many of the less fortunate have fallen into destitution and increasing poverty," according to a recent report by Oxfam.
In the absence of viable alternative livelihoods, some have turned to banditry and armed robbery, making armed police escorts mandatory in many roads in northern Kenya.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Help us be the transformation we’d like to see in the news industry
The current journalistic model is broken: Audiences are demanding that the hierarchical, elite-led system of news-gathering and presentation be dismantled in favour of a more inclusive and holistic model based on more equitable access to information and more nuanced and diverse narratives.
The business model is also broken, with many media going bankrupt during the pandemic – despite their information being more valuable than ever – because of a dependence on advertisers.
Finally, exploitative and extractive practices have long been commonplace in media and other businesses.
We think there is a better way. We want to build something different.
Our new five-year strategy outlines how we will do so. It is an ambitious vision to become a transformative newsroom – and one that we need your support to achieve.
Become a member of The New Humanitarian by making a regular contribution to our work - and help us deliver on our new strategy.