Mt Kenya stands tall, its snowcap jutting into the clouds. It is enormous, straddling three counties.
But this mountain, as mighty as it stands, is feeling the effects of climate change, its crown slowly melting away. In another twenty years, the snow on her head will be completely gone.
Just like that, Mt Kenya will go down in history as one of the first mountain ranges in the world to be completely de-iced by climate change. This is just one of the many consequences that Kenya continues to suffer as a result of global warming.
Tea, a major cash crop and foreign exchange earner for the country, also faces an uncertain future, particularly in Kericho County, as temperatures rise. Kenya's first State of the Climate report, published in 2020, found that night temperatures had risen in agricultural areas, affecting not only human comfort but also plant growth. According to the report, Kericho has experienced a 24.4 per cent change in night temperatures since the 1960s, and an 11.7 per cent change in day temperatures over the same period.
"These are areas where we never have had malaria because it was considered too cold for mosquitoes to breed. But now we have reports of mosquitoes in highland regions like Kericho, so the impact of these rising temperatures is already being seen," said Ms Patricia Nyingu'ro, a climate scientist at the Kenya Meteorological Department, during the launch of the report.
The report also suggests that the suitability for maize production is changing, with some of the current maize-growing areas of Eldoret and Kitale becoming too wet for maize production. This analysis was echoed by researchers at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, who are developing a climate atlas for Kenya.
“Maize production is shifting to the northern side of the country, which has traditionally been considered unsuitable, as opposed to highland areas like Kitale,” said Prof John Wesonga, a member of the team developing the atlas.
The State of the Climate report adds to a series of similar reports that paint a bleak future for agriculture in the face of climate change. In 2020, tea researchers at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) published a paper confirming Kenya Meteorological Department's findings. The paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Science, compiled 58 years of data and found that annual temperatures in the country had risen by 0.0160C. Meanwhile, rainfall fell by 4.8mm per year in each of the 58 years.
"Climate data from the Kenya Meteorological Department shows that the temperature in the region will increase by about two per cent by 2025 and by 11 per cent by 2075. This means that the distribution of areas suitable for tea cultivation within the current growing areas in Kenya will decrease," the Kalro study says.
Tea needs between 1,800 and 2,500 mm of rainfall per year to grow optimally. But as temperatures continue to rise and droughts become more frequent, tea is suffering from heat stress. As a result, between six and 19 per cent of individual tea plants die, causing farmers to lose up to 20 per cent of their crop, Kalro researchers say.
"Adaptation in the tea sector is key," says the study. "To improve the performance of tea, a key strategy would be to understand the mechanisms involved in stress tolerance and then breed varieties for this trait."
"Africa's climate has warmed more than the global average since pre-industrial times (1850-1900). In parallel, sea level rise along African coastlines has also been faster than the global average, contributing to an increase in the frequency and severity of coastal flooding, erosion, and salinity in low-lying cities," wrote the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation, Mr Petteri Taalas, in the 2021 State of Climate in Africa report.
The report, released ahead of COP 27, found that, regardless of the steps the world takes to limit global warming, glaciers in a third of the 50 World Heritage Sites are already doomed to disappear by 2050. These include Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro. The remaining two-thirds of glaciers can be saved from snow loss, the report says, if temperatures do not rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius, in line with the Paris Agreement. More than half of the world's population depends on glaciers for their daily water needs, and the rapid melting of snow puts the world at risk of flooding as 58 billion tonnes of ice melts each year, causing sea levels to rise.
The effects of sea-level rise are already visible along Kenya's coast. In Tana River County, Kipini is a village on the brink of extinction as the Indian Ocean eats away at it piece by piece. A few hotels that once stood on the beach no longer exist. Locals say they no longer have fresh drinking water because their wells have turned salty. Graves are shallow because they find salt water when they dig six feet down.
National heritage sites along the coast are also at risk of disappearing due to climate-induced sea-level rise, and the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) have taken notice.
"This is a very good example of how climate change is affecting the world. If you think about it, 500 years ago the area around Fort Jesus would have been on much higher ground, but now it's at the bottom of the sea. This is not just a problem for Fort Jesus. It's affecting the Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi, the Jumba La Mtwana site, Lamu, all the coastal sites. And unless something is done, we may be lose this heritage in a few years' time," NMK says.
To adapt to the changing climate and mitigate further risks to the coastal sites, the NMK began building a wall, but this did not go down well with Mombasa County.
"While we agree that there is a need to build a sea wall to protect Fort Jesus, I don't understand why it is necessary now. Still, there are better ways to deal with this. So we object to the construction of the sea wall because this is an area that is historically very important to all of us, it is a public area. So this sea wall is going to change the whole ecological ecosystem of this area," then governor Hassan Joho told NMK at the time. NMK replied that the sea wall was necessary because if it was not built, the fort would fall into the ocean.
At present, Fort Jesus has lost 20 metres of land to the sea, causing cracks in its walls due to 500 years of erosion. So far, the seawalls have held, providing some relief to the sites. But NMK says lack of a comprehensive national heritage database and insufficient expertise are some of the challenges facing adaptation efforts. The museum is now recommending that the government build capacity by including cultural heritage in the school curriculum, so that children can learn why it is important to protect these sites from the effects of climate change.
Around the world, climate extremes are threatening food security and human health, with billions of dollars’ worth of property and assets washed away in floods, livestock lost in droughts and lives lost in heat waves.
July 2023 has gone down in history as the hottest month on record, with 21 consecutive days of higher temperatures than any other month on record. July also saw the hottest night on record in Death Valley, USA, when temperatures reached 48.9 degrees Celsius just after midnight. In the same month, Algeria recorded the highest temperature extremes in Africa, when most nights averaged 39.60C. Extreme heat waves have also been reported in Europe, Canada, China, Mexico, parts of Africa and Japan.
"Human activity has been responsible for virtually all of the global warming over the past 200 years. The rate of temperature rise in the last half century is the highest in 2,000 years," said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. While Kenya has been fortunate not to experience such extremes, it should be noted that some parts of the country are already living above the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature limit.
Over the past 50 years, scientists have recorded a general decline in rainfall in all 21 countries classified as arid and semi-arid (Asals), while temperatures have risen. In fact, between 1960 and 2014, the Asals warmed by between 0.5 and 1.9 degrees Celsius. Isiolo, for example, recorded a temperature change of 1.01 degrees Celsius, which has not only made the county hotter, but also led to a decline in cattle numbers of at least 10.4 per cent between 1977 and 2015. By 2030, Isiolo is projected to be 1.2 degrees hotter. This will make livestock production almost impossible.
West Pokot and Elgeyo-Marakwet counties both recorded a temperature increase of 1.91 degrees, while Turkana and Baringo recorded a temperature increase of 1.8 degrees. Data from the Kenya Markets Trust showed that Laikipia had warmed 1.5 degrees, while Narok's temperature rose by 1.75 degrees.
Human-induced climate change is interacting with several other factors to amplify risks and increase vulnerability in Africa and Kenya. From more intense and frequent droughts to heavy rainstorms, ecosystems and communities are struggling to survive. When the lakes along the Rift Valley began to rise, thousands of people were displaced and property lost. Today, although the lakes have receded, many of the displaced families may never return to their homes. Losses and damage from the rising lakes have been estimated at Sh17 billion.
The country is just emerging from its worst drought in 40 years, which has put nearly five million people at risk of starvation. More than two million livestock worth over Sh2 billion have been lost. The government estimates that at least three per cent of GDP is lost due to climate change.
"Climate change is not a problem for tomorrow, it is a problem for today. It is on our doorsteps, in our workplaces and everywhere we go. Its manifestations are vivid: shifting seasons, erratic rainfall, and the appearance of vector-borne diseases in places where they never existed. We need to adapt to the new realities of the context in which we find ourselves. This means, as scientists advise, that we need to adapt and build our resilience, and also adopt lifestyles that do not further damage the health of the planet. We need to live in harmony with nature by adopting sustainable modes of production and consumption," said Dr Mithika Mwenda, Executive Director of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.
Beginning today, Kenya hosts the Africa Climate Summit, which has brought together more than 10,000 delegates from around the world. At the top of the agenda, Kenya says, is finding solutions to the changing climate, particularly those that address Africa's unique needs and circumstances that make the continent vulnerable to climate change.
“Is it the case that those who have emitted the least are punished for doing the least and those who have polluted the world, the biggest polluters, are rewarded? We want a system that is accountable, that holds ... those who pollute the world accountable. If it is not accountable, it is corrupt," said President William Ruto at the UN Habitat Assembly in Nairobi in June.
"The Africa Climate Summit will be unique and special as it will be the first summit to bring together all African heads of State and government under the umbrella of the African Union to discuss climate change. The summit will chart a green growth path for the African continent, setting the stage for Africa to lead the world towards a more environmentally responsible global industrialisation, catalysed by accessible, adequate and affordable financing," said MS Soipan Tuya, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Forestry.
How to tackle climate change and bring justice to the communities most affected remains a hotly debated issue at the annual UN climate talks, but there may be some light at the end of the tunnel following the establishment of a loss and damage fund at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, last year.
"To build resilience among our people in the face of frequent rainfall and crop failures, Kenyan farmers need to embrace the cultivation of hardier, drought-resistant and disease-tolerant food crops. There is also much to be gained from adopting agro-ecological and regenerative farming practices that promote biodiversity and soil health. At the same time, overgrazing, which causes land degradation, must be avoided. By finding innovative ways to conserve water, Kenyan communities will have eased the pressure of drought and built resilience," said Mr Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa.
In the face of climate change, the country has adopted various adaptation and mitigation strategies, such as tree planting and climate-smart agriculture. Communities have also adopted ways of surviving heat waves, such as only going out during the cooler hours of the day or moving to cooler areas.
"And, since we are affected differently depending on our level of development, those who have the capacity should help those who are on the front line of the crisis. As an imperative of climate justice, those who caused this problem during their development process should support the victims of their actions," said Dr Mwenda.
Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), the first major climate report since 2018, which detailed the devastation of climate change around the world and how human activities such as fossil fuel use and poor land use practices have pushed the world towards 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming. The role of fossil fuels in global warming is often hotly contested, with developing countries refusing to phase them out. Now the UN says a net-zero future should not be debatable.
"Leaders in emerging economies must commit to reaching net zero as close as possible to 2050 — and again, this is a limit they should all aim to meet. Some have already made the 2050 commitment," said the UN Secretary-General at the launch of AR6.
"To put that in context and to put a number on it," Mr Christopher Trisos added, "it's almost half. We need to reduce emissions by between 40 and 60% by 2030 if we are to stay within the 1.50C target". Mr Trisos was speaking as one of the lead authors of the IPCC report.
Kenya is currently reviewing its Climate Change Act to include carbon markets as it seeks to raise funds to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. According to a plan submitted to the UN, the country needs more than $60 billion to become climate resilient, but can only finance 13 per cent of this.