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Coping with drought: A community-led response

In Kenya's South Rift valley it is estimated that 60 per cent of livestock have died as a result of the recent drought (WRENmedia)
In Kenya's South Rift valley it is estimated that 60 per cent of livestock have died as a result of the recent drought
WRENmedia

Drought once every ten years has been the expected norm in East Africa, but with a failure of rains over several seasons, it seems that drought is becoming an almost annual event. Rains have recently arrived in Kenya but the impact of the recent drought will continue to be felt for many months, if not years. In order to develop coping mechanisms for the future, pastoralists in the South Rift valley have undertaken a survey to better understand the impact of drought on their livestock, people, and the local economy.

The survey was commissioned by members of the Olkiramatian community group ranch. Local leadership meetings were held in three areas with researchers from the African Conservation Centre (ACC), as Samantha Russell of the ACC explains: "Leaders came together to discuss the drought and talk about the questions they wanted answered. Combining what they wanted to know with what the ACC scientists felt was also important, enabled us to develop a short questionnaire, which would then be undertaken by local resource assessors in each place."

School leavers have been trained to assess grazing, water and livestock resources and record people's impressions of the drought (WRENmedia)
School leavers have been trained to assess grazing, water and livestock resources and record people's impressions of the drought
WRENmedia

The survey team of resource assessors, mostly trained school leavers, used global positioning systems to map resources, track movement of pastoralists, and locate areas where pasture was still available. They also gathered data on livestock losses and disease. Full analysis of the results is yet to be completed by the ACC but a report is expected shortly and will be shared through a community meeting of elders. However, initial findings suggest that around 60 per cent of the livestock in the South Rift Valley have died as a result of the drought in the last two years with most of the casualties being cattle.

Exacerbating the drought

In some areas, the effects of the drought have been particularly severe. In the Oldonyo-Nyokie locality, 80 per cent of the households have lost all their livestock, which before the drought averaged 400 cattle and 3,500 sheep and goats per household. For many, selling animals to reduce financial losses has also been impossible; local cattle markets have closed and animals have been too weak to be taken to more distant markets, with owners fearing they may die on the way.

According to the survey, foot-and-mouth disease is also now rampant due to the movement of livestock over long distances to find pasture. However, diseases like contagious caprine pleuropneumonia and trypanosomiasis have become less prevalent; the persistent high temperatures are thought to be one reason for this.

As well as quantifying the extent of the losses, the survey has also looked at the wider circumstances facing the drought-stricken communities. It has revealed, for example, a marked increase in the number of cattle, sheep and goats being kept by each household before the onset of the drought. Though not yet proven, this has raised concerns that overstocking may have exacerbated the water and grazing shortages.

Maasai community leaders commissioned the drought survey, and will gather to discuss its findings (WRENmedia)
Maasai community leaders commissioned the drought survey, and will gather to discuss its findings
WRENmedia

As a result, community leaders have begun to advise that sheep and goat numbers in the area should be reduced even after the end of the drought when grazing is restored, as intense browsing by small livestock is more likely to result in land degradation and desertification. In addition, pastoralists are being advised to sell livestock when prices are good, rather than struggle to maintain large herds and flocks.

Learning from others

Potential responses to drought have also been revealed from beyond the region. Interviewing pastoralists who had taken their animals as far as Tanzania, the survey team gathered evidence that Maasai communities across the border have been planting fodder grass, something the Kenyan community has not done. As a result, the Kenyan pastoralists also intend to start planting grass, for example near rivers, when the rains return. They may also consider cutting and storing grass when the rains come, as an insurance against drought.

The benefit of the survey is that it has revealed the knowledge and practices that already exist within the community. "One of the interesting things was that they have gone to an area and they have seen people who are doing it differently. Then they have started to ask themselves, 'Why does this guy have grass yet it is in the middle of a drought?' So they are starting to question some of the practices that they are doing themselves," says John Kamanga of the South Rift Association of Land Owners.

Josphat Meiponyi, one of the local resource assessors agrees that the survey has been invaluable: "The animals are very important in our life. We depend on them wholly. When they are dead, we are the next victims to die. So, when it comes to such severe incidences as this recent drought, the Maasai have to come together and talk to solve these issues."

Russell agrees, "We have leaders' meetings planned before the end of the year to feed back the results from our analysis. After that it is up to them to tell us what they need from us, but also for them to take those results and continue their discussions."

Written by: Oluyinka Alawode with contributions from Kofi Adu Domfeh

Date published: November 2009

 

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The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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