Deafening sound of unending anguish as drought wreaks havoc 

Herdsman

A herdsman at Maikona Village in Marsabit County at a water point in this photo taken on March 15, 2022. Herdsmen from different places across the rocky hills in North Horr cross the Chalbi Desert in caravans to water their livestock at this water point.

Photo credit: Anthony Njagi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The dreadful reality of changing climate is hanging menacingly over pastoralist communities.
  • The International Rescue Committee says climate change will continue to run roughshod over communities.

Every dawn brings despair and emptiness to Hawa Muhmed, with the burst of sunrise a harsh reminder of the torment she has endured throughout her life.

When the sun begins to burn in Ohio village, Balambala, Garissa County, the mother of 11 can only wish for one thing: A breeze to make the day bearable. But with virtually no vegetative cover here, the wind brings with it all evils.

A sandstorm can turn this remote village into hell on earth in a few minutes. By 10 O’clock, the sun hits this outpost north of Kenya with savage intensity, grinding all human activity.

When she crawls out of her manyatta at daybreak, Muhmed, 40, walks to the animal shed to inspect her livestock. Sometimes she wakes up a few animals short, some too overwhelmed by starvation to last the night. From a flock of 35 goats, 20 have died in the last few weeks. She can’t sell the survivors—all too weak to walk to the market and too emaciated to fetch any reasonable prices.

Holding the weakest among them in one hand and her youngest daughter in the other, Muhmed feeds the goats with a mixture of water and maize flour, letting them lick the paste off her palm. Thereafter, she heads to a tree in the compound where her only cow lies, to water it.

Then she and her neighbour support it to its legs. Muhmed then leaves to feed her young children and aged mother. This is her daily ritual. 

For this woman, life never changes. She grew up in this wilderness where drought has been the only constant factor in her life. Her parents lived through it and, somehow, survived. Now she’s raising her children in the same environment. Illiterate and dirt-poor, there’s no hope that her family’s circumstances will likely change—at least not in this life.

“It’s always been dry but never like this,” she says, guiding her shy three-year-old daughter into the family manyatta.

Across a dusty stretch from her compound, Hassan Farah tethers his only surviving cattle to a tree. The father of 16 has lost more than 50 goats and seven cattle, each animal’s death pushing the family closer to the brink of starvation. Even the camels are on the verge of dying. Only rain here will save his livestock; except the sky here isn’t promising at all.

“This is the worst drought in the 20 years I’ve lived here. What we’re seeing now, I haven’t experienced before,” says the 60-year-old, feeding the animal some range cubes donated by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Members of this community have been nomadic pastoralists across generations. Herding is all they know. The climate may have changed over the last three decades, but this Somali community has stuck to its pastoral ways. Now nature is pushing them and their livelihood to the brink.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) says climate change will continue to run roughshod over communities, unleashing ‘‘widespread and sustained’’ damage across the world, even as humanity limits global warming.

Farah, Muhmed and her young family have seen perhaps the worst of Mother Nature’s fury. Carcasses, rotting away in their homesteads, serve as a stinking reminder of their existential bondage, and of the anguish to come. 

After months of drought in this semi-arid zone, there’s little left in the way of life. The area has received less than 30 per cent of normal rainfall, according to data from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. 

The current drought comes only three years after a similar one devastated populations here. That 2020 was the third warmest year ever recorded in Africa, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), has hardly been surprising. The National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) has called drought and insufficient rains here “the order of the day”.

The vegetation has been scorched up, and only the hardiest varieties have survived. But even these have only spikes remaining, burned by the sun or chowed down by animals. A sea of red soil and sand stretches as far as the eye can see, too hot to touch.

Animals, wild and domestic alike, are dying in their hundreds. In this village, there’s no guarantee livestock will return home when they leave in the morning to graze. Carcasses of camels, cattle and donkeys lie every which way, in every stage of decay. Even animals that feed on carrion have disappeared from the area owing to lack of water, leaving the dead animals to rot away slowly.

Huddled together under a drying acacia tree by the roadside on the Balambala-Garissa highway in a sorry spectacle, a tower of giraffe seeks shade from the punitive sun, without luck. Many have died; many more will die. Recent images of the tall browsers collapsing from thirst underscore the severity of the drought.

While the area has suffered periods of drought throughout history, never before have wild animals’ existence been this threatened. Residents say it’s the worst drought in 20 years, others the worst in their lifetime. For these giraffes and other game in this wilderness, their fate is inevitable and imminent.

Communities in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River and Kilifi rely, sometimes exclusively, on livestock for livelihoods. With thousands of livestock wiped out by the raging drought, nearly 2.5 million people in these counties are struggling to find food, up from 1.4 million people in February, says UN. But children (465,000) and either lactating or pregnant women (93,000) are at higher risk of starvation.

Already, this chronically vulnerable demographic is malnourished.

For months, bowsers have delivered water to hundreds of helpless locals, with every truck that drives into this village bringing hope and life. Men and women scrambling to board a truck to the nearest borehole, 21 kilometres away, underlines the level of desperation in this pastoral community.

In villages across Balambala, Ijara and Fafi sub-counties, women tend their goats under trees, with nowhere to take them, after vegetation dried up, first grass, then scrubs. All day, the starving animals bleat with the anguish of empty intestines, their legs too feeble to carry their weight. 

As effects of climate change disrupt human activity across Kenya, arid and semi-arid counties have suffered the savagery in its fullness. For residents, scarcity of water is now compelling them to make the difficult choice between watering their animals and storing some for their families’ use.

Throughout history, water-related violence has characterised life in these hardship counties. Disagreement on the right to fetch or water livestock from certain boreholes can be fatal. Incidents are increasing as Mother Nature revolts. 

In Shebta aad village of Balambala, only one borehole supports more than 150 households and thousands of their livestock. Installed by the national government and powered by solar, water here runs in a trickle as hundreds wait in eagerness. This watering point is as much a relief point as it is a landmine. Every day, men and women haggle here as they water their animals and fetch some to take home. 

A trip to the borehole could end in many ways. Daylong delays. Fights. Even tragedy, with lost lives. It’s a fact that Harith Barre knows only too well. This herdsman from a neighbouring village takes with him a flashlight every time he sets out to the borehole, just in case the unforeseen happens. 

At Tsangatsini in Kilifi, more than 500km away, Kadzo Kenga stands in the spiteful sun as her 10 cows browse on scrubs. So wasted and bony are the animals you can’t tell a mature cow from a calf.

“This is the same spot I had brought them yesterday. There’s nothing left to eat, but I have nowhere else to take them,” she laments. 

In the expanse of this area, only spiky scrubs remain following 20 months without a drop of rain. In this dry area that doesn’t support crop farming, livestock farming has been the main livelihood for decades. Even during the toughest of droughts, the animals have always, somehow, survived. Now livestock farming is fast becoming untenable as the climate changes. 

“The current drought has been severer and longer,” says Mwalimu Kogo, a herder. “We have never lost so many animals in a year.”

Like his counterparts in Tana River and Garissa counties, Kogo is stuck with dying animals. “What’s the use selling a cow at Sh1,500? Some butchers buy at Sh2,000, but those don’t come this far. Do you buy food for your family or pay school fees with the money?”

This man buys fodder for his five cattle. Many of his neighbours, though, are too poor to afford fodder. For months now, FAO has been providing such farmers with range cubes for their cattle.

Edward Charo, a father of 10, is a beneficiary of the nutritious pellets, usually provided in the severest cases of drought. “My cow is healthier now. I’m even able to milk and feed my children,” he says. Without the mineral blocks, he fears his cow would be dead.

To water cattle, residents of Tsangatsini walk for 12km to the nearest borehole. This is two kilometres less than the average distance travelled by affected communities in the country (NDMA). Animals drink only three times in a week. Unable to sustain this routine, many herders have sold their livestock. Others have slaughtered theirs, rather than watch them die.

For Kogo and others with larger herds, slaughtering them is out of the question. Many have lost an entire stock to the drought bites. With a dozen dependents, Charo would hold on to his for as long as it takes.

At the local cattle dip, men gather for booster injections provided by the county’s livestock department and FAO. Like in boreholes in Garissa County, the cattle dip is a theatre of chaos. Shouts from the agitated herders and desperate mooing of their cattle rend the air as they shepherd the animals into the yoke for the injections.

“The booster injection is a concentration of nutrients that helps to revive the weak animals. The injection also helps to fight worms in the animal,” explains Dr Mathoko.

From FAO to WFP, IRC, USAID and UKAID, independent Kenya has been home to international humanitarian agencies for more than 50 years. These bodies have provided relief to Kenyans distressed by hunger, conflict and other disasters, natural and human, spending trillions of shillings in the process.

In 2019, for example, the USAID provided about $121 million (Sh13.3 billion), in aid, to assist drought-hit populations and combat the desert locust disaster—the worst infestation in 70 years.

While aid has enabled communities to survive one disaster after another, marginalised communities are as vulnerable now as they have ever been, thanks to the threat of climate change. Worryingly, this vulnerability is now spilling over to parts of the country where communities have always been food-secure.

Getting relief food to remote shopping centres such as Korakora and nearby villages in Fafi sub-county is a nightmare for humanitarian organisations. With the worsening drought and hunger, residents say al Shabaab operatives now roam villages freely and more frequently, recently bombed communication masts being evidence of the insurgents’ activity. While attacks on residents are rare, the presence of outsiders in villages here is certain to create tension. 

On the day the Nation is visiting, the World Food Porgramme (WFP) is distributing relief cooking oil and bags of sorghum to residents. To many, relief food has been the only means of survival for years.

“We boil [the grain] and feed it to our children. Sometimes we make bread from it. We have nothing else,” one mother said in Somali.

But even for FAO, WFP and other humanitarian agencies, the landscape of interventions is fast changing from disaster response to initiatives that boost resilience of communities in the red zone. 

NDMA chief executive James Oduor agrees, arguing that while reversing patterns of drought is almost impossible as the climate continues to change, “you can make people cope with it.”

Oduor notes the need to construct additional water and health infrastructure, especially in arid and semi-arid lands, and to invest in sustainable livelihoods to diversify families’ sources of income. This, he notes, would reduce their sole dependence on livestock.

The USAID says the ongoing drought has “exacerbated chronic stressors, including food insecurity and malnutrition.” In addition to its programmes that support health and nutrition systems among vulnerable communities, the US agency is currently undertaking initiatives to boost resilience and “mitigate the effects of recurrent natural hazards”. 

United Nations Population Fund says that as climate hazards worsen, communities suffer not only food insecurity and malnutrition, climate disasters also perpetuate the risk of disease outbreaks, such as diarrhoeal, urinary tract and upper respiratory tract infections, common in Garissa, for example.

In the past few weeks, counties in northern Kenya have received some rainfall. Grass and other vegetation for livestock is growing. Hope is being restored.

After months of tearing through the wildness to look for water for their families, women are now relieved. There’s plenty of it near their villages, though the dreadful reality of changing times is hanging menacingly over communities living here. It’s the end of one disaster, until the next one hits. 

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