Climate wars: How desperate search for water lures families to death

climate change, climate wars, drought

Lorot Ekalale, 13, who was shot at while grazing near Ewaso Ng'iro River in Isiolo. He underwent two surgeries that saved his life.


What you need to know:

  • Lorot is among millions of Kenyans living in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) in the country who have had the longest drought spell in years –three years, and counting.
  • Water and pasture scarcity is now fueling inter-community conflicts more than ever before.

On the day that Lorot Ekalale, 13, cheated death, he and his parents’ goats never came

back home. The last memory etched in his mind about that day is the sound of gunshots.

“Mysterious gunshots,” he says. “I thought I was alone at the river that day, I didn’t see anyone, not even when the shots were fired.”

So hazy is his memory that he neither remembers what it felt like walking away from the river with a bullet lodged in his stomach nor seeing the people who shot him take the goats with them.

The goat heist was done - a destitute boy was left fighting for his life. His mistake? To go out in search of water.

Back home, his mother hoped the sun would go down and her son would come home with the 50 goats he left with in the morning.

Lorot is among millions of Kenyans living in the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) in the country who have had the longest drought spell in years –three years, and counting.

Water and pasture scarcity is now fueling inter-community conflicts more than ever before.

“I had gone down the river and ensured that the goats had taken enough water. When I heard the gunshots, I was relaxing, ready to go home. I then felt something strange pierce through my stomach. I became weak but I managed to start walking towards home. I blacked out a few steps from the river and I don’t remember the events that followed after that,” he says. 

When Healthy Nation team visited his homestead, he had been there for just a week. The attack happened in May this year he and stayed in hospital for three months, where he underwent  two surgeries that saved his life.

We find him outside one of his parents’ manyatta in Zebra village, Isiolo County. Unlike other boys his age who have gone out to look for water and pasture for the animals, he has to stay back with women, children and the elderly.

His mother tells Healthy Nation how that morning his son was upbeat as he took his herding stick and led the goats out of the pen. His next destination was on the eastern side towards Ewaso Ng’iro River; the nearest source of water for the animals and the only major river in the county.

climate change conflict, water woes, water crisis

A graveyard of one of Peter Lokutoi’s brothers who was shot dead by unknown people from a neighbouring community in Isiolo.


“My son did not return home. I was told about the incident days after he had been taken to Isiolo County Hospital and later transferred to Kiirua Hospital. I was devastated, but I am happy that he is alive today,” she says.

While Lorot was lucky to have escaped the claws of death, his older brothers lost their lives while grazing.

We meet his surviving older brother Peter Lotukoi.

“About two years ago, one of my brothers had gone to look for water for our cows, he was shot at in the head and died on the spot. My other brother also went out with the remaining livestock, he was shot but survived for a few hours only to die at  the hospital,” he says.

drought, water woes, water crisis, borehole

Residents fetch water at a borehole drilled by the Kenya Red Cross in Sericho location, Isiolo County. The borehole is the only source of water in the area.


While his youngest brother survived, the family was left with a debt burden since he stayed in hospital for three months.

“It was shocking to learn that my younger brother had also been attacked. We learnt about it five hours after he had been shot. We did not have any money to pay the hospital bill as livestock is our only source of income. We were just lucky that it was the political season so one of the aspirants paid part of the bill, which had accumulated to about Sh300,000. We now owe some people about Sh50,000,” he adds.

A few metres from Zebra Village is Kona, where the Healthy Nation team meets Susan Amuria, a 23-year-old widow left with two children, all aged below five years.

“My husband woke up that morning to go and fend for us. He left with the cattle and I stayed behind to take care of our one-month old baby. At around 2pm, I heard from a neighbour that the man my husband went out with had come back home injured. They had not seen my husband.

“That evening, some of them went out to look for him but they could not find him. The next morning, I accompanied them and we found my husband, lifeless and no cows in sight,” she narrates.

Susan is scared that she may not manage to raise her children alone. She has no form of employment and solely depends on well-wishers. 

“For how long will I be like this? I used to go to church to get food, but not anymore. Right now my sisters and neighbours share the little they have with me. I wonder why the enemies killed my husband…” she narrates, breaking down.

Her neighbour, Bedicto Epeyon, also lost his father this year.  “We just heard gunshots at around 12pm. We were so scared we couldn’t leave the house. That night alone, we lost two people,” says Napore. 

“Right now we are scared of stepping out when darkness falls. We do not have any form of security here. We are on our own,” says Benedicto. 

Margaret Soiyo, the chairperson of Nyumba Kumi Zebra village, says climate change is exacerbating conflict and they need the government to intervene.  

“Our community used to have guns a long time ago but we surrendered them in 2000 because we love peace. The neighbouring community still have guns to date so they are empowered to attack us when we go out to look for water for our animals,” she says. 

“We need police reservists , we don’t even have a police station around. We are already suffering from the worsening drought. But it is not fair that our people are dying when they go out to look for water,” she says. 

About 220 kilometres from Ngaremara is Sericho Ward located in Isiolo South and inhabited by the Borana Community. En route to Sericho is the Merti plateau, whose sand and bone dry vegetation is not kind to both animals and human beings. 

There is a blinding sand storm and strong monsoon winds when we get to Sericho, the heat from the sun notwithstanding. Children are running from school to home since they do not have classes in the afternoon because the heat at that time is unbearable. 

For these children, getting food is not a surety because inflation and drought has hit their families. Food, a necessity, has now become a luxury. 

We meet area chief Mohamed Dabaso, who tells us that this year alone 10 people have been killed in water- related conflicts.  

“We are fortunate to have a borehole that was sunk by the Kenya Red Cross but our neighbours don’t have any source of water. Drought has affected all of us here and when the neighbouring communities don’t have water, they come here and fight with the locals. We are not armed so we become powerless,” he says. 

Mohamed speaks of the reality of climate change in the region, saying the community has lost about 50 per cent of their animals in three years. Their main source of water was a tributary for the Ewaso Ng’iro River that has since dried up, five years and counting. 

Mohamed Roba, secretary of the Water Management Committee of the only borehole in the area, says the dry spells have contributed to the drying up of the river, which had also changed its course.

“We used to depend on Ewaso Ng’iro River and for about five years, we have not seen it flow here. The borehole is our only source of water and our population has grown to about 20,000 people. In town, we have to ration the water and get it at least three times a week. The cows get the remaining days because they take a lot of water,” he explains.

For a fortnight now, the water has become so salty and a number of locals who use it are suffering from diarrhoea-related complications. 

Rainfall patterns

Previously, the county received rainfall twice a year, in October and November, but the patterns have since changed. 

In the last three years, for instance, the county has not received rainfall even on a single day, worsening the already dire water situation. This has in turn led to conflicts.

Research from the Kenya Rapid Acid Data shows that more than 73 per cent of the villages in Isiolo County rely on water sources that are unsafe and beyond five kilometres reach. It also indicates that about 58 per cent of the water sources have saline water or excessive fluoride levels.

Jemimah Maina, a climate scientist working with Kenya Red Cross, affirms that climate change can aggravate inter-community conflicts. She calls it cascading risks of climate change.

“It is complex but it is true that climate variability and change leads to pressure on available natural resources, which increases tension within communities. This can lead to conflict, displacement and other impacts,” she explains.

Jemimah adds that it is quite strange for a river or its tributary to dry up for that long, noting that climate scientists in the country should do an in-depth analysis of the root cause.

“For a river to change its course or dry up, especially a tributary, it may be caused by subsequent drought. This is because there is no rain. We may need to check where the source of that tributary is. If its source is seasonal, then it could be affected by lack of rain from the upstream,” she explains.

Speaking on the state of planet peace in December last year, Antonio Gueterres, secretary -general of the United Nations, said human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos.

“The fallout of the assault on our planet is impeding our efforts to eliminate poverty and imperilling food security. And it is making our work for peace even more difficult as the disruptions drive instability, displacement and conflict,” he said.

“We must deliver a breakthrough on adaptation to protect the world – and especially the most vulnerable people and countries -- from climate impacts,” he added.

On the flipside, a summary of a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross released in 2020 shows that climate change may not be directly linked to armed conflict.  Instead, it suggests that countries as well as communities that have conflict are not likely to cope with climate change. They however agree that it is likely to increase the risk of conflict.

“It may indirectly increase the risk of conflict by exacerbating existing social, economic and environmental factors. For example, when cattle herders and agricultural farmers are pushed to share diminishing resources due to a changing climate, this can stir tensions in places that lack strong governance and inclusive institutions,” said the ICRC report.

Climate scientists are also calling for adaptation in areas where climate has changed, just as it has in the country in regions experiencing longer spells of drought. 

“Adapting to climate change may require major social, cultural or economic changes. A whole agricultural system might need to change, or diseases new to a geographical area might need to be dealt with. Concerted efforts to adapt tend to be limited in times of war. In a conflict situation, authorities and institutions are not only weak, but also preoccupied with security priorities,” said the report by ICRC.

Jemimah explains that pastoralism is a form of adaptation, it is only that when there is drought, there is no ‘greener’ place to go to and should a community have some water and grass, then conflict is likely to arise.

“From way back, when the herders realised that they have livestock and there is an area that has fodder and water, they used to move to that area, which helped in conservation and adaptation. In terms of agriculture, diversification of livelihoods is an aspect of adaptation. Pastoralists can learn to concentrate more on animals like goats which are browsers than and may not be grossly affected when the land dries up. This is why cows, which are grazers, are affected first in cases there is drought,” she explained.