A lone fisherman sits indolently on a rock in the middle of River Athi in Kamulu, drawing fish from a small patch of water in the wide valley. Occasionally, he swats a mosquito off his legs with his palm.
Here, large sections of exposed rock form part of the river channel, which has minimal water and scattered ponds. It’s uncharacteristic of the giant river, especially during the rainy season.
For many decades during the long rains in March, April and May, a swollen River Athi flowed with speed and rage, sweeping downstream everything on its path. Trees, crops, artificial structures, livestock and other debris constituted its load as it hurried through Machakos and Kiambu counties in the long journey toward the Indian Ocean.
But that was when Nairobi, Kajiado and Kiambu received high rainfall throughout the year. This month, at a time when it should be bursting its banks and wreaking havoc along its course, only a section of the Athi has water.
From the frightfully diminished water levels today, Athi’s best days may as well be behind it. The remaining water, muddy in some sections, flows with near-stoical reluctance, the mocking evidence of changing times. Failed rains upstream have cost the famous river both its pride and vitality.
In the last four decades, the effects of climate change in Kenya have been stealth, almost imperceptible. Many dismissed the threat for years. Until they couldn’t anymore. Today, the manifestations of climate change the country over are obvious, devastating and inevitable. To many, the realisation of a climatic disaster in our midst has been both sudden and jolting.
The situation is as alarming in productive agricultural regions in Kenya’s highlands as it is in the arid and semi-arid regions of the country. From Narok to Mandera, Makueni, Murang’a, Nyandarua, Trans Nzoia and Nakuru, the effects of a fast-changing climate have been felt far and wide.
Droughts are longer and more severe. Rains are shorter, erratic and insufficient. Meanwhile, the volume of water in major and minor rivers across the country has reduced. Some rivers have dry beds most of the year, and some flow only during the wet season.
It’s no longer a question of whether climate change is a reality in Kenya, but how grave the situation can get in the next few decades.
But just how bad is the situation? How are communities coping with the transformation? Can the effects be reversed?
In Cherangany, Trans Nzoia County, the country’s food basket is not giving as generously as before. Here, seasons are unpredictable, rains erratic and farmers on the edge. Whenever it rains, the rains usually are not as intense as what pounded the area two decades ago, says Joseph Kariuki, who grew up in the famous hills.
“April rains were always assured. The disappearance of the rains has a lot to do with deforestation. During the late President Moi’s era, the government allocated a lot of land under forests to people for farming activities,” he says.
Today, large swathes of Cherangany Hills are bare. The quest to expand agricultural land to boost food production three decades ago has turned out to be the biggest threat to farming here, with rains now scanty, sometimes even absent.
In Nyeri and Murang’a counties, the raging rivers of the past have gradually been replaced by sluggish seasonal streams. In others, only a trickle serves as the reminder of a river the flowed here.
Swimming in rivers was as much as routine as a recreational activity when Moses Mwenja was growing up in Mukurweini, Nyeri County, in the late 1990s and mid-2000s.
Mwenja, 30, and his boyhood friends used to swim in rivers Gura and Rwarai (or Rutune) at the border of Nyeri and Murang’a counties. At the time, this and other rivers in the region flowed all year round, with only a slight change during the dry season.
“We would spend a day swimming and fishing in Rwarai and Gura. One time I nearly drowned while fishing with my friends in Rwarai,” he narrates.
But even then, water levels had started to reduce steeply.
“When my mother and her siblings were going to school in the 1970s, it was so dangerous for children to cross Rwarai on their own. My grandfather had to help them to cross to and from school,” says Mwenja.
These days, children from nearby villages of Gaikundo, Karuthi and some parts of Tetu need not be chaperoned, thanks to the reduced water levels. Mwenja fears that by the time his children grow up, only dry river valleys might be all that is left.
In Tambaya, Gura, a tributary of River Sagana, has been a wonder for centuries, flowing vigorously and with a sense of urgency. Considered the fastest river in Kenya, Gura hardly dries up. At least not evidently. But to residents here, things are not normal.
‘’It’s worrying to see Gura without water. You can cross the river from anywhere these days,’’ says Elijah Mureithi, a resident of Muthinga in Tetu, disbelief written all over his face.
As the climate situation in the country debilitates, so has the frequency and severity of flash floods in urban centres, including Nairobi. Whenever flood water submerges Nairobi, blocking its avenues and disrupting life, nowhere is the menace more profound than in the capital city’s informal settlements such as Kibera.
In a slum where encroachment of river valleys is rampant and drainage systems nearly non-existent, floods destroy property worth millions whenever they occur. In more frightful past incidents, lives have been lost after slum dwellers drowned when their shacks, built in the valley of Ngong River, were swept away by floods.
Sudden downpours are also responsible for electrocution accidents when rainwater permeates naked power lines that dot the slum.
In Kibera, most of the population lives in tin shacks, which makes them virtually uninhabitable during the hot season. Nairobi has experienced two heatwaves in the last five years — 2016 and 2018. These tin houses are a death trap, and experts warn that hundreds of slum dwellers would be fried to death in the event of a full-scale heatwave.
Temperatures in Nairobi have been rising by an average of 1.8° Celsius every 50 years, with the urban heat effect rising at alarming rates.
It is in an attempt to save lives that interventions such as Daraja Ambition have emerged in Kibera. This British Council-funded initiative aims to improve climate resilience in slums by building bridges between communities and weather information providers.
“Through Daraja Ambition, we collect daily and weekly weather forecasts and distribute the information to residents through text messages to help them prepare accordingly,” explains James Kirika, a Weather Mtaani champion.
Kirika obtains regular weather updates from the Kenya Meteorological Department in charts and icons, which he and other weather volunteers convert into text messages in simple language that residents can consume.
Preparation for sudden weather changes involves clearing drainage systems, dressing for the weather, and for those living close to the river, evacuating their families and belongings to higher, safer grounds.
In its heyday, Kitwii Cooperative Society was the heartbeat of coffee farming in Kangundo and surrounding areas in Machakos County. Farmers from as far as Miu, Kawauni, Mususye brought their coffee here for processing. At the time, the area was receiving enough rainfall to sustain the crop.
Today, the coffee factory lies in ruins, bean drying beds rusting away as bushes now overwhelm its compound. For an institution that employed tens in the 1970s and 80s, no life is left here. That its gates will open again is a pipe dream.
Even maize, which was doing well here 30 years ago, cannot be grown, thanks to unpredictable and insufficient rains. To sustain their families, farmers have resorted to fruit farming. Martin Nzioki has lived in the area all his life and has witnessed the changes in climate first-hand.
Says he: “Before, the rains would fall in mid-March just in time for the planting season. These days, it rains by February when we’re just preparing our fields. By April, the rains have disappeared. We end up losing the entire crop.’’
In the last three decades, the landscape that was dominated by maize has now been transformed into endless lush avocado, mango and tree tomato farms.
For Nzioki and other farmers, the change in weather here has been a blessing in disguise.
“We have now moved away from subsistence agriculture and began practising agribusiness. People are now making money from their farms. It’s the only way to survive here,” he says.
“Fruits are essentially trees that don’t dry with delayed rains. Unlike maize, it’s harder to lose the trees.”
While the shift was inevitable, fruit farming has come with even more devastating consequences for the environment. About 30 years ago, seasonal rivers such as Miu and Kathithia Maa flowed all your round. Enter water-intensive fruit farming and the rivers are now on their deathbed.
“Farmers have dug trenches and boreholes on their farms that inhibit the flow of water to the river valley. Others have planted trees, causing further strain to the rivers,” Nzioki says.
The result is dry beds with intermittent ponds whose little water is greening with algae. Bridges here serve no purpose as humans and livestock prefer to use the dry beds to cross the valleys.
Even so, some streams here have, almost miraculously, survived the ravages of a steadily changing climate.
Nzioki explains: “The only rivers that never dry are those that draw water from underground aquifers. If it were not for these springs, we wouldn’t have any rivers flowing.”
The tree cover in Machakos and Makueni may have become denser in the last four decades, providing shade for locals. But when the sun shines here, not even the trees can neutralise its severity.
“The sun has become hotter in recent years. You could endure its burn then. These days, it’s difficult to work or walk in the sun,” says Martha Mueni, a resident of Mubuana in Makueni County.
For a country whose 70 per cent of agriculture is rain-fed, farming has taken perhaps the biggest blow. In Narok County, famous for large-scale wheat production, beef and dairy farming, farmers are considering a shift to different crops and animals.
Ranchers such as David Sangok have scaled-down beef farming and introduced pigs instead. Some are planting trees on farms where their livestock have grazed for decades.
“Before, we used to keep two heads of cattle per acre in grasslands in the highlands. Today, the same size of land only allows half the animals due to scanty pasture because of reduced rainfall,” Sangok says, noting that profit margins have shrunk considerably over the years.
The farmer argues that even after reducing the stock, the cost of running a farm has remained intact.
‘’You need the same amount of labour to operate the farm. The farmhouse also requires the same essentials to maintain and run,’’ he adds.
When the weather was stable and rainfall sufficient in the county, farmers depended on rivers Siabei, Narok, Ewaso Ng’iro and Mara to water their livestock. The rivers have dried up, and some become seasonal, forcing farmers to shift gears.
“We’ve had to drill water pans and boreholes on our farms to cater for the animals. This is an additional expense for farmers,” he laments.
When rains started failing in the 1990s, Simon ole Poror, a dairy farmer in Rotian, Narok, went the same route — reducing his stock gradually. Having started with nearly 50 dairy cows, today he has only 15 on his farm.
In lowland and highland beef farming locales in Narok, high temperatures in recent years have increased the rate of evaporation of water from pans.
Farmers here have to drill the water pans afresh to make them deeper to increase their storage capacity. Those with existing ones are digging more pans to mitigate the risk of drying up.
Others have sunk boreholes to provide enough water for their animals as the situation becomes graver.
For farmers who share water pans, these have become disease-spreading points as cattle from different farms interact.
“Foot-and-mouth disease is one of the dreaded livestock diseases that has been spreading here. The affected animals can’t feed well. They can’t be sold either,” one farmer told the Nation.
Herders now fear a catastrophe in coming weeks should the rains delay further.
“I might be forced to buy water for the animals,” says Sangok.
It’s almost inconceivable to buy water for two of his farms where more than 200 beef and dairy are reared. Yet the circumstances seem to be pushing him and others in that direction.
Whenever there’s no water in the lowlands, Sangok and other farmers transport their livestock to ranches in the highlands where there’s plenty of water and pasture. It is a costly endeavour, but the only way to salvage their livelihood and investment.
In wheat-growing areas, some farms have abandoned the practice for other economic activities. Those with the means have moved to Timau in Meru, where rainfall is sufficient and reliable. Others pushed to the limit by perpetual crop failure and unimaginable losses, have ventured out of the country to try their luck in Uganda.
For many years, greenhouses in Kenya were associated with horticulture, where farmers grew crops, mostly flowers and vegetables for sale, in a controlled environment. Not anymore.
Today, greenhouses dot the country, including Nakuru, Kiambu, Nyandarua and other counties that have traditionally received high amounts of rainfall.
Here, farmers can grow crops all year round. While greenhouses have reduced crop failure, this method has made farming more expensive. Besides, owing to the high setup cost, only Kenyans with the wherewithal can take this route.
The conflict between pastoral communities in the Rift Valley, eastern and northern counties are now common, as herders fight for pasture for their livestock. This follows years of gradual loss of grazing fields and watering points.
Elsewhere, the National Environmental Complaints Committee in 2020 had to intervene in a dispute involving residents of Mosiro at the border of Narok and Kajiado counties and soda mining company Tata Chemical Magadi Limited.
To control siltation at Lake Magadi, which contaminates trona, the multinational had in 2019 constructed dykes worth more than Sh200 million, diverting River Kisamis to one of the grazing fields owned by the Maasai community.
When flash floods occur, the dykes redirect water to nearby homes, to the ire of the community. Last year, residents were up in arms after the area flooded, submerging homes and displacing more than 500 people.
Mandera may be one of the driest parts of the country. Yet for decades, the pastoral community here has comfortably fed and watered their animals from the scanty vegetation available. Drought was always manageable. Not anymore.
For the last two years, the area has received barely any rainfall, after the short and long rains in 2019 and 2020 disappeared. Since January, women such as Duniya Abdulahi have had to walk for more than 15 kilometres to draw water from the communal tank that’s fed by county trucks.
Pastoralists are now watching helplessly as tens of their livestock starve to death, losing their only source of livelihood. Some have driven their animals to Ethiopia and Somalia in search of water and pasture.
After such prolonged periods of drought come vicious floods. Here, residents have learnt to live between the two extremes.
‘’We are at a tipping point. If it doesn’t rain soon, the situation could run out of hand. We might even lose lives,’’ warns Mohamed Ali, Mandera County Water minister.
While the community has been advised to change their way of life to mitigate losses during drought, many have stuck to nomadic pastoralism, mostly for a lack of choice. To Aden Barre, livestock is more resilient than crops.
“You can move elsewhere with camels and cattle when there’s drought. You can’t do so with crops. You watch your crops fail,” he argues.
Some though have taken the plunge to engage in crop farming, with mixed results. Mohamed Kerrow and Abdi Hagiow sold their livestock to cultivate land in Banisa and Bula Impya respectively. Here, they irrigate their plots where fruits such as guavas, pawpaw, mangoes and oranges grow.