One day, Mau Forest will bear strange East African fruits

What you need to know:

  • Seems then that climate change in general could remake Africa’s borders in ways only the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 did.

  • Its consequences are in plain sight in the form of food insecurity, conflict and migration and financial instability.

  • After we have buried the hundreds of millions of people who will have died (may their souls rest in peace), seems to me like it could still be a very interesting world.

The Mau Forest is back in the headlines as the Kenyan government undertakes another round of evictions of “encroachers”.

Emurua Dikirr MP Johana Ng'eno was arrested with authorities alleging he was on his way to lead protests against the evictions.

HOT SPOTS

The Mau has been a hot political potato for some years and, with every passing week, it gets higher up on the list of Kenya’s existential issues. For a good reason too. With some of the highest rainfall rates in Kenya, and being the largest drainage basin in the country, several rivers originate from the forest and they, in turn, feed Lake Victoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Natron. Mau is not just a local issue.

Last week, award-winning Australian science journalist Julian Cribb said the world must act now to avoid conflict over food, land and water spreading from hot spots such as Syria to power centres like London and New York.

“We tend to think of food crises as something that happens in Africa or some other developing country,” Cribb told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We think supermarkets will always be full of food.… But the world only has about three months’ supply of grain in store at any one time.”

He said the world’s food systems are coming under increasing strain from a combination of climate change, water scarcity and soil and biodiversity loss. And if harvests were to fail in a major grain-growing region, prices of grain and bread would spike, “supermarkets can be emptied in 24 hours, if people panic. We are far closer to hunger than most of us suspect.”

GET WORSE

Cribb identified seven “powder kegs” at risk of conflict in the coming four or five decades. South Asia topped the list, followed by Africa and China.

Three weeks earlier, the World Resources Institute (WRI) reported that nearly 25 per cent of the world’s population (about 1.7 billion people) faces a water crisis. It means these people live in areas where agriculture, industries and cities withdraw 80 per cent of their available water supply every year.

In such a vulnerable state, the report said, even a small dry spell could be enough to cause a crisis. And these dry events, scientists agree, are only going to get worse with climate change.

“Water stress is the biggest crisis no one is talking about,” claims Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI, adding: “Its consequences are in plain sight in the form of food insecurity, conflict and migration and financial instability.”

The Middle East and North Africa were highlighted as the most water-stressed region by far. From Africa, Eritrea is in the “Extremely High Water Baseline Stress Category”. A slew of African countries in the “High Water Baseline Stress” group include Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Namibia, Niger and Egypt.

POLITICS

And this brings us back to Mau. Already a flashpoint, it is ultimately about how long Kenya as we know it today will exist: Where will it get its drinking water? Where will the water to grow its food come from in the decades ahead? If it runs out of water, what then? Will the zero-water areas attack water-rich ones?

But it could also remake the politics of the sub-region. If the border regions of Kenya’s neighbours Uganda and Tanzania have water, surely, it would only stand to reason that Kenya should raise an army to seize these lands for the survival of its people.

Alternatively, if it can’t subjugate them militarily, become part of Tanzania or Uganda or, at a minimum, it would have no option but to kiss the rings of the rulers of the day in Kampala and Dodoma.

Seems then that climate change in general could remake Africa’s borders in ways only the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 did.

Of course, our societies are complex, and things are never that linear. We see that in Kariba, the world’s largest man-made dam on the Zambezi River, straddling the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, which has taken a beating at the hands of climate change in recent years and at various points all but dried. It has plunged both countries in a long electricity crisis.

THRIVING

But new grasslands and “wetlands” have emerged in the dried parts, and all sorts of wildlife and plants have popped up and are thriving.

In Zimbabwe, some irrigated areas, and farms with all the clever solar-powered equipment, have attracted wildlife from near and far, causing a problem for peasant farmers in their path, but also suggesting we could survive not as big centralised nations, but city states built around ecological oases driven by green energies and technologies.

After we have buried the hundreds of millions of people who will have died (may their souls rest in peace), seems to me like it could still be a very interesting world.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo

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