In the eye of a storm: Alarm as Kenya’s climate crisis draws global attention

Amina Wanjiru wades through a flooded alleyway in the Soweto

Ms Amina Wanjiru wades through a flooded alleyway in the Soweto informal settlement in Kayole, Nairobi, mid-last month. 

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Kenya is cited as among countries in the throes of climatic chaos where a series of debilitating droughts have ravaged farmlands and ploughed through livestock; and now the country faces the dread of the El Nino phenomenon.

Dubai, UAE

Kenya’s climatic catastrophe was cited as among the world’s worst on the first day of the global United Nations summit on climate change in Dubai yesterday, bringing to sharp focus the delicate future the country faces in a year of searing temperatures and horrendous floods.

Speaking during the opening session of the COP28 conference, World Meteorological Organisation Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said Kenya’s flooding disasters, like those of many other countries in the world, have been intensified by the El Nino phenomenon and exacerbated by climate change.

While it is normal for events like drought or flooding to occur when there is El Nino, Mr Talaas said that it is the strength of its occurrence that is worrying.

“First, there was drought and it is now flooding in Kenya. Part of this has been caused by El Nino and La Nina variabilities. Without climate change, the impacts would have been much milder, and so climate change is enhancing the risk of severe flooding,” he said, adding: “We now have combined effects of El Nino and climate change. Without climate change, we couldn’t have broken these all-time high temperatures. This is also affecting rainfall patterns.”

Data from the State of the Global Climate Report, released at the summit yesterday, paints an even grimmer picture for Kenya and the global south.

The world has already achieved about 1.4 degrees Celsius levels of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, and this could have disastrous effects on the millions of subsistence farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture for food and commerce.

A degree more in warming temperatures means that there will be about seven per cent more humidity in the atmosphere, causing more rain during rainy seasons, and unbearable temperature during dry periods.

That Kenya is in the middle of climate-related throes has never been in doubt, but recent events have raised fears about its medium and long-term future.

Temperatures have soared in recent months, hitting highs of upper 40s in some parts of the country, especially in the lower eastern, coastal and northeastern parts of the country.

A debilitating drought has ravaged farmlands and ploughed through livestock, emptying granaries and killing millions of stock. And now the country faces the dread of the El Nino phenomenon, with the same farmlands that were scorched just a few weeks ago now either washed away or flooded.

More than 130 people have died so far and more than 90,000 households displaced, transport networks have been disrupted, and the economy faces a calamitous battering as the effects of the flooding come to effect. In the Tana River delta, more than 6,500 hectares of irrigated farms are now flooded, according to the National Disaster Operations Secretariat, and many more others in other parts of the country are either inaccessible or unviable.

More than 70,000 delegates from around the world are meeting in Dubai for the next 14 days for the United Nations’ biggest climate meeting, COP28. World leaders, among them President William Ruto, are expected to join the high-level sessions that will chart the future of the globe.

Kenya says it has set its sights on delivering justice for its people in light of the climate impacts that the country, and the continent, continue to suffer.

This, said Environment Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya in an interview with Nation on the sidelines of the summit, is why the negotiators under the technical coordination of the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change and Forestry have developed a position paper to guide negotiations under different agenda items.

Kenya’s priority areas, which include adaptation and climate finance, are pegged on the common Africa agenda and the Nairobi Declaration, which was the outcome of the Africa Climate Summit and which earned President Ruto global acclaim.

The President is expected to present that declaration at the COP in his capacity as the current chair of the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change.

“The African Leaders Nairobi Declaration on Climate Change outlines how feasible, effective, and low-hanging options for climate mitigation and adaptation are already at the world’s disposal from the African continent and only requires accessible capital and technology to realise,” Ms Tuya said.

“Throughout the conference, both State and non-State actors from different sectors will use the global gathering presented by COP to hold bilateral meetings and use existing platforms to mobilise resources and partnerships for various climate action programmes and projects.”

At the just-concluded East Africa Community Heads of State Summit, President Ruto urged leaders to have innovative and sustainable measures that will help in the fight against climate change.

He proposed the signing of a new charter that would boost the financing of such innovations.

"If there is one thing we should achieve at COP28, it is climate financing through climate investment. The new charter should be on new ways of financing that are climate-sensitive and support positive growth,” he said.

And, while addressing the European Parliament days earlier, the President called for stronger international cooperation to fight climate change and poverty, and tackle conflicts.

Highlighting the importance of the Dubai talks to the country’s greening and adaptation agenda, Dr Pacifica Ogola, Kenya’s chief negotiator, noted that the primary document of the summit will be a global stock-take, which, she added, will give a clear direction on what the world needs to do to “course-correct” and meet the all Paris Agreement goals.

While there has been progress in several areas of the climate agenda, many countries are still dragging their feet on pollution and the policies around it.

As such, billions of litres of greenhouse gases, among them carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are still pumped into the air every day by global industries, especially those in the developed countries, which are referred by climate activists as ‘the global north’. It is the countries in the ‘global south’, like Kenya, who suffer the consequences of that pollution despite contributing little to the mess.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned yesterday that, as global leaders dither, this year is on course to be the hottest in recorded history, citing scientific projections that have become almost expected at these summits.

“Record global heating should send shivers down the spines of world leaders,” he said. “It should trigger them to act. We have the road map to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst of climate chaos. But, we need leaders to fire the starting gun at COP28 in a race to keep the 1.5-degree limit alive.”

Mr Guterres also urged world leaders attending the conference to commit to tripling renewables and the world’s energy efficiency as well as phasing out fossil fuels within a clear timeframe.

Last year, the biggest win for the climate conference, held in Egypt as touted as the ‘African COP’, was the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund, which will cater for losses that could neither be redeemed by mitigation or adaptation efforts put up by local communities.

“Leaders must get the Loss and Damage Fund off to a flying start with generous early contributions,” Mr Guterres said yesterday. “Today’s report shows that we are in deep trouble. Leaders must get us out of it, starting at COP28.”

He urged world leaders to start committing to adding funds to that kitty to help vulnerable communities on the frontline of the climate crisis, adding: “Every person on earth must be protected by an early warning system and every vulnerable developing country should have the support it needs to develop and implement adaptation plans and investments by 2025.”

Dr, Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company who, as the COP28 president, will lead talks to deliver on the climate aspirations the globe, was categorical in his speech during the opening plenary.

“The science has spoken,” he said. “It has confirmed the moment is now to find a new road, a road wide enough for all of us, free of the obstacles and detours of the past. That new road starts with a decision on the Global Stocktake, a decision that is ambitious, corrects course and accelerates action to 2030.”

But, as Dr Al-Jaber spoke, and as he stepped into the most important role in climate talks, calls for his resignation were growing loud among the climate activists in Dubai and around the world following allegations that he is holding brief for the oil industry, with instructions to derail any talks of a phase-out of fossil fuels. He has denied the allegations and maintained that he is committed to the agenda of the COP.

“I know there are strong views about the idea of including language on fossil fuels and renewables in the negotiated text. We have the power to do something unprecedented. I ask you to work together,” he urged delegates.

“Be flexible, find common ground, come forward with solutions, and achieve consensus. And never lose sight of our North Star of 1.5C.”

- Reporting by Hellen Shikanda, Zeynab Wandati, Leon Lidigu and Bernard Mwinzi in Dubai.