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Drought: too much of a good thing

November 3, 2009

“A little bit of drought forces the different tribes to live closely and cooperate over the few water sources. But if a drought is too severe or lasts a long time, then animals start dying and tribes steal cattle from each other, leading to violent conflict,” says Father Fabio.

“Yes, but when the drought is really bad, people get their animals back more easily, because the raiding tribes and the animals they take are too sick and weak to go very far,” Father Andrew points out.

The drought is really bad. It’s not that the nomadic people here are unused to dry conditions – they live in a desert – but droughts are becoming more frequent, lasting for longer and the rains between them are becoming shorter. Droughts used to occur every 9 or 10 years, followed by rains. The past decade has seen severe droughts occuring every other year, and it hasn’t rained at all in some parts for the past four years. People’s traditional drought-management strategies no longer work. There is no longer time for the people and animals to recover from a drought and build up their strength and resiliance, and breed more animals, before the next one hits. Global warming has brought higher temperatures that evaporate what water there is faster from wells and reservoirs, and the little vegetation there is is heavily overgrazed by herds from miles around, making it even scarcer. Lack of water has brought hydropower shortages that plunge even Nairobi into darkness. In parts of Ethiopia and Kenya where I have visited, there are lethal outbreaks of cholera and diarrhea, people are starving – in some cases to death – animals are dying, and it’s going to get so much worse. The rains, which are late to arrive, are predicted by meteorologists to be particularly heavy this year – it’s an El Nino year – washing away crops, causing landslides and flooding and drowning weakened animals. (Large parts of the major coastal road to Mombasa have already been washed away.)

Kenya is an uneasy conglomerate of tribes, stirred up and manipulated by Arab slave traders, then British colonialists and, following a brief period of post-independence calm and prosperity, fighting amongst each other for land, animals and water. Kenya has slipped 20 places on the Human Development Index since 2002, the government is corrupt and making little progress towards democratic reform, frustrating conflict-weary Kenyans and alarming the international community including US President Obama, who last week exerted a bit more diplomatic pressure on the government here. Quite apart from effecting the security situation and increasing bureaucracy and tedious bribes, corruption has a more insidious side: people cannot tell whether the medicines they buy are real or fake, or for example, whether the seeds that they pin their futures on are of stated quality.

More than 80% of this equatorial nation is arid, populated by nomadic tribes that cover vast areas with cattle, goats and camels. It is difficult to overemphasise the importance that animals hold for these tribes. They are everything to these people: status – without animals, a man cannot marry, with a large herd, he may have 6 or 7 wives; wealth, food (these people eat nothing but blood, milk and meat), security – the people love their animals dearly. Many times I have heard of cases where people rather spend money on medicine for a sick goat than their own sick child. And the relationship defies understanding in other ways, too. When a drought is very severe, such as it is now, it would seem to make sense for the poeple to sell their animals before they get very sick, and use the money to buy food, or save the cash for better times to buy healthy animals. At least, you would think, when the people get very hungry, they would begin to eat their animals. Instead, what mostly happens, is that the tribes watch their animals getting sicker and sicker then dying, each day hoping that the next will bring rain.

As they lose animals, the compulsion becomes greater to raid a neighbouring tribe for theirs. And so the deadly cycle continues.

Climate change may finally break this cycle. The increased frequency of droughts here, which fit into climate model predictions for the region, is bringing about changes in the way these people live, the social structure of tribal groups and even the role that women play in these deeply conservative communities. For example, the Dassenach, a tribe with 10 sub-clans that live on both sides of the Ethiopian border (around the fertile Omo Valley and the desert shores of Lake Turkana), is a nomadic herding people, which measures the status of an individual by the numebr of animals he owns. This number dictates everything from whether he can marry to his position within the clan. But there is another, low-caste community of Dassenach, called the Dies, who do not own animals, but who instead fish – an occupation widely considered as inferior and beneath a ‘real man’. In times of hardship, such as when animals die or must be sold, herding members may become Dies for a while, until they can rescue themselves from this indignity by getting some animals again.

Fishing, though, is a very secure livelihood. Fishermen don’t go hungry, nobody can steal their fish because they don’t need to wander to remote areas to graze, and fish can be sold in the city for cash to buy other things (unlike sick or dead goats). So, a subtle change is occuring: Dies, who have long laboured tolerated their lowly position, are gradually improving in status. Being more settled, means they can take advantage of education and healthcare facilities in villages and towns, and so improve their position more. But it is spelling the end, perhaps, for a nomadic way of life that goes back millennia. Former herders can be seen selling charcoal at the side of the road, and living in the slums of cities like Nairobi, where a cholera outbreak is currently taking tens of lives.

This is just one example; there are many more. But our time spent with these fascinating, colourful tribespeople, and the journey we made to get there, is every bit as exciting and the subject of my next post.

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