For the 75 years he has lived, Joseph Tolua, the village elder at Esonorua village, Kajiado County, has known livestock keeping as the only source of sustenance.
In his community, both skill and stock are passed from one generation to another, and after all these years, Tolua believes he has learnt everything there is to know about livestock keeping. Reasonably so, because from over 500 head of cattle a decade ago, he has none today.
“My deepest fear right now is that we may starve to death,” he says, holding back his tears. “Without livestock, I have no way to earn a living.”
When we visited Tolua’s home, the area was entering its fifth year without rain. As he walks about an empty shed, which just five years ago held over 100 cattle, Tolua narrates how children in the village, including his own, are steadily dropping out of school and families falling deeper into poverty and depression.
Like Esonorua, many parts of Kenya are seeing increased frequency and severity of droughts, occurring thrice in the past decade.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)’s Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC) has carried out drought surveillance over the years and reports that trends are changing, rapidly and extremely.
According to Viola Otieno, who leads Drought Monitoring and Early Warning Systems (for drought) in the region, the latest bout of drought is unprecedented.
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“You can see that it is a multi-year drought with five consecutive failed rainfall seasons, and that had not been witnessed before,” she says.
According to a review of data on drought in the Horn of Africa region by ICPAC, the period between 2010 and 2020 witnessed a new trend in droughts.
“We're seeing more intense and protracted droughts,” says Otieno.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that droughts cost Kenya about 8 per cent of its GDP every five years. The 1998 to 2000 drought, for instance, cost the country about $2.8 billion, mainly due to crops and livestock loss, while another severe and prolonged drought from 2008 to 2011 hit 3.7 million people and cost $12.1 billion in damage and losses and over $1.7 billion in recovery and reconstruction needs.
The droughts have been ripping apart the playbook of different communities, especially pastoralists like Tolua, sinking them into abject poverty.
“All these years, we have relied on each other,” Tolua says, adding that “after each season of drought, whoever is lucky to remain with livestock gives some to the others left with nothing, and we rise again, gradually.”
But this time it’s different for them as almost every household is seeking help. Their rudimental form of insurance — relying on who is left standing after every drought cycle — has broken down too.
“If you walked this entire location, you would not find anyone with more than 10 goats, it’s much worse for cattle,” he narrates.
According to Otieno, it boils down to the frequency and compounding of disasters. For example, in places where drought occurred just once in a decade, allowing communities time to recover, now droughts are more frequent and compounded by other disasters like floods.
“We had 2016-2017 drought, and then before five years you already have 2020 happening, and because it was prolonged, there is not enough time for people to recover, and that means vulnerability increasing, resilience going down,” she explains.
The increasing frequency of droughts is also causing an expansion of Kenya’s drylands, tearing down the pastoralists' practice of migrating to new grazing fields when droughts come.
This age-old practice is becoming impossible as the places they have ordinarily moved to in periods of drought are progressively drying up, yielding little or no pasture at all.
The main factor behind the desperate journeys of these pastoralists is that of unsustainable land use, putting many of Kenya’s ecosystems, including primary forests, under unprecedented stress.
According to Simon Onywere, a professor of Environmental Planning and Management at Kenyatta University, the country is staring at the onset of desertification as a result of human activities.
“Look at Mount Kenya,” says Prof. Onywere, zooming on satellite images of the Mount Kenya Forest complex on Google Earth. “This entire place is supposed to be a tropical rainforest, but what is left are isolated pockets of trees and very short shrubs,” he explains as he shows different sides of the complex.
Prof. Onywere proceeds to show the level of destruction in three other tropical forests; namely, the Aberdares, Mau Forest complex and Cherangany Forest. He compares satellite images taken over several years, noting that the forests were mainly decimated from the centre out, leaving an impression of thriving ecosystems from the outside, yet space-borne photography shows massive destruction.
“No wonder we don't have enough water in the rivers, because it is in these ecosystems that many rivers have their source,” he says.
He adds that increased temperatures and episodes of drought will worsen across the country as a result.
As Prof.Onywere skims through numerous satellite images of the Mount Kenya complex, he takes interest in the northern side, around Timau, where he says what used to be a catchment area for many rivers is today under acres of wheat, stretching across the landscape.
“Farming is taking place right at the moorland in the upper part of the mountain, and similarly on the Meru side,” he says.
The same situation obtains in the Aberdares and Mau Forest complex, with the latter worst deforested. The allure of farming has destroyed the very source of crucial support for agriculture — water sources.
Driving towards what is today the reserved forest, it is easy to tell how far the forest boundary has been pushed over the years. Large tracts of what used to be forest land are now agricultural farms, with plantations only interjected by homesteads.
There is even more destruction inside the remaining forest. Drone footage shows that farming and human settlement have persisted, across the complex. The satellite footage that Prof. Onywere showed in the maps is consistent with what we found on the ground.
Between 2000 and 2020, Kenya lost approximately 2,850 square kilometres of forest cover, which is hundreds of square kilometres larger than Kiambu County, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The data suggests that 80 per cent of this loss happened in primary humid forests, like the Mau, Mount Kenya, the Aberdares and others.
Dr. Joshua Magero, a senior analyst on global poverty and inequality trends at Development Initiatives, has been tracking data on forest loss and household income trends in the country. He says some of the counties with the highest rates of deforestation are also witnessing significant reductions in household income, pointing to a link between the two factors.
Dr. Magero says six counties — Narok, Kilifi, Kwale, Baringo, Bomet, and Nandi — have contributed to more than half of the total forest cover loss, triggering significant increases in poverty rates.
“Kenya loses about 54 square kilometres of forest cover annually, according to data by Global Forest Watch, multiply that over the next two or three decades and you have a disaster,” he says.
But it is not just the diminishing primary forests that is a problem. Prof. Onywere, arguing for better land use management in Kenya, says degradation in any part of the country compounds the problem.
“Deforestation affects the areas with forests, but we also need to think of forests in terms of the natural vegetative sponge for storage of moisture, and at that level, even grasslands become forests,” he explains.
Prof. Onywere explains that Kenya is a typical case of steady desertification occasioned by a lack of land use structures. In addition to degraded forest ecosystems, he says, the destruction of dryland ecosystems is contributing further to drier conditions.
While recent trends indicate that most drylands receive good amounts of rainfall just about once or twice in three to five years, most communities in those areas till their land all through in the hope of receiving rains. That, according to Prof. Onywere, lets out all the moisture from the soil.
In the case of pastoral communities, such ecosystems are depressed by overstocking and subsequent overgrazing, which leaves the land bare and the vegetation unable to regenerate even when it rains.
“We are, basically, creating a desert. It’s very easy to create a desert, all you need to do is to clear the vegetation on the surface and don't allow water to infiltrate into the ground,” Prof. Onywere explains.
While many parts of the country may still be experiencing the rains, the fact that the raging waters cannot wash away the scars of drought for people like Tolua points to the realities of ecosystems depressed beyond their natural regenerative capacities, and the country must now urgently address the problem of unsustainable land use.