Explore the past, present, and future of emergency aid in our Rethinking Humanitarianism series

Extreme weather tests pastoralist perceptions

Camels trek in the Chalbi desert region in northern Kenya in search of water
Camels trek in the Chalbi desert region in northern Kenya in search of water (Ann Weru/IRIN)

The effects of climate change - such as drought, livestock deaths and resource conflict - may be all too apparent for the pastoralists of northern Kenya, but there is much to be done to explain the true causes.

"We were warned about the current situation by our elders and spiritual leaders when I was very young. This was about 50 years ago when the Ngishili age groups were born,” Lemeteki Lerinagato, 70, told IRIN in the Samburu district.

He said the Ngishili began to be beset with bad luck when they started to marry, and that somso (floods) and ngolin (drought) would only end with their deaths.

Similar views are shared by other communities across the arid North of Kenya.

"Our people are dying like wild animals due to hunger, thirst and poverty. Young men are being killed every day. I am afraid our girls will not find men to marry. It is a curse... nothing else," said Wario Ndenge, a Gabra elder from the upper eastern Marsabit region.

"Frequent droughts and lack of food are clear signs of the curse. Women must stop wearing trousers. They should respect their husbands. And the wealthy must help the poor.”

An imam in neighbouring Isiolo, Sheikh Yakir, said: "All humanity regardless of colour, tribe or religion has committed, and unfortunately continues to engage in, sinful acts. The holy books, the Koran and the Bible, have the most accurate information about all these disasters; we are responsible for all of our problems."

"We must change, people are losing all their livestock yet they have a chance to prevent such losses. They must pay zakaat [alms], desist from mixing their herds with those that have been stolen... Our option now is to continue performing khunud [special prayers] and fast three days every week."

Sheikh Yakir said rampant destruction of the environment, which is prohibited in Islam, was also to blame for water scarcity and conflict.

Information gap?

According to officials, most residents either disagree with the scientific explanation of climate change or are unaware are of it.

Lordman Lekalkalai, Isiolo Arid Lands Resource Management Project community officer, said.

A programme intended to minimize the effects of weather-related events has been set up in the areas of Isiolo and Garbatulla to provide climate change information, down to the village level, and support food security projects, Lekalkalai, said.

''The delivery of accurate information will help pastoralists, who have suffered the brunt of climate change, understand that the challenges are not a passing crisis, and change their current perception''

Government assessment reports of past weather patterns and impacts and information, gathered from residents will be used by climate change committees in the programme being run by aid workers, government officers, and community and spiritual leaders, Lekalkalai said.

With more information, he hopes it will be easier to convince communities to act on weather forecasts to forestall losses such as livestock deaths - by selling herds. Residents have traditionally considered large herd ownership a source of wealth and pride.

A recent survey in 10 African countries found that available information is not sufficient or effective enough to help people understand the reasons behind environmental issues.

New livelihood forms needed

Lekalkalai said the government will establish more livestock markets and abattoirs in the region and encourage rainwater harvesting. “We intend to diversify our source of livelihood and diet [to] increase income, food security and alleviate poverty,” he added, noting that there is a need for residents to embrace both livestock keeping and food crop production.

Both livelihood forms are viable as there is fertile land along the Ewaso N’giro and Tana rivers in the region, noted Guyo Abduba of the Isiolo/Garbatulla District Agricultural Office.

A pastoralist expert, Daud Tari, urged the integration of traditional knowledge in weather risk reduction.

“It is misleading and unfair to suggest that nomadic pastoralists are ignorant [about climate change]. In fact they are more informed about the subject as they are the most affected but the least involved to prepare to mitigate the effects for which they are also the least responsible," Tari said, adding that more funds should be allocated to help dry-land communities adapt.

According to Abdinasir Ali Guled of the Indigenous Resources Exploitation Organization, the changing climate has increased poverty and environmental degradation as residents turn to charcoal burning to survive after dropping out of pastoralism. “The youth are resorting to cattle rustling; insecurity has also worsened,” Guled said.

Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai recently noted that 15 of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa. “We must find the right way to let our people know why. Finding the most appropriate means to reach people and using their own language is the key,” she said.


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

Share this article
Join the discussion

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.