Understanding and responding to Kenya's drought
John Kamanga, a pastoralist, is coordinator of South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO), a land trust in Kenya.
In the grip of this drought I have seen terrible things. When you see exhausted herders and emaciated cattle return to their homes it is because they have nowhere else to try for grazing. They feel they have failed their families. It is heartbreaking. But many of us in the pastoralist community believe that now, at the height of this crisis, we must examine the impact carefully and use our findings to make changes.
Challenges of change
The current drought, the worst since the 1960s, has now lasted for two and a half years. More than half a million people have left their home areas in search of forage. It is projected that three million cattle will die: a US$5 billion loss. Whatever the causes, pastoralists have to respond and adapt to the challenges posed by changing weather patterns; what we must do is mitigate the effects. We have to do what we can to create sufficient reserves of grass, as well as reduce our livestock numbers.
What we need from the government
During bad times we are not able to sell off our animals, and feeding our families and educating our kids become really hard. However, schemes like buying up cattle to put money in the pockets of hard-pressed pastoralists are not the way to go. Considering the scale of the problem, how many families would be reached? Instead, governments need to prepare people before a drought becomes bad: for example, by giving them advanced warning of drought so they can sell cattle in good time, before any price slump. In the situation we have now, people may need a bit of relief: we need to ensure there's sufficient food for people to outlive the drought. But we also need support so that when the rains come we can restock.
Government is pushing policies like land subdivision, but parceling land into small, uneconomical units is unproductive for the rangelands, encourages unsustainable use and makes us more vulnerable. Therefore, as landowners we are coming together to champion things we'd like to see happen. We've conducted a drought survey to help us better understand what's happening, and the causes. When it's over we can sit and say, 'OK, we went through this drought; it was a disaster. Why do you think it happened, and how do we go forward?' This evidence will help us advise on policy.
One of the things coming out is that, traditionally, water access has been very constrained; we were not allowed to have our own watering-point. Instead, what pastoralists did was to ensure that the watering-points were far apart so that animals had to walk long distances for water. This restricted their ability to feed, thereby preserving the pasture. Now, anyone who owns a few animals and has the money can dig his own water-hole. As a result the land is being degraded.
A workable strategy: diversify livelihoods
We must find new ways of using the rangelands; helping pastoralist people to use their assets to generate other sources of income. We've got the Uaso Nyiro River here at the edge of the Ngurumani sub-location as well as several streams, therefore some cultivation throughout the year is possible. We are also encouraging communities to go into conservation and tourism. For example, we have areas preserved for dry season grazing which also support rich populations of wildlife; we have now established a tourist lodge, which brings money for development and serves as a backup when livestock can't be sold.
Sharing knowledge and learning from experience
The Olkiramatian Group Ranch in the South Rift is one of the few that still use the traditional pasture management system. Through exchange programmes, we are now sharing our experiences and learning from pastoralists in other parts of the world. We've been very lucky to have hosted cowboys from America and we've also had pastoralists from India. Interestingly, we learned that a hundred years ago the cowboys subdivided their land. Now, while we are busy subdividing land, they are amalgamating! Do we have to go through that cycle? We can stop and reflect, develop policies and mechanisms so we don't make the same mistakes. We're also asking whether we need to improve our breed of livestock, so we can keep fewer animals but not sacrifice milk and meat production.
However, to maximise productivity it is clear that we must maintain open rangelands; mobility is very, very important. When you put animals in a constrained or smaller area, the land becomes prone to erosion. Rangeland soils are very delicate and people must handle them with a lot of care. Tilling the land may not necessarily yield better results; research shows that in arid lands, like sections of Narok where wheat farming has been done, you can only get a crop once every ten years. That's wasteful. Livestock rearing, if managed appropriately, is sustainable and can give people good returns.
The drought has tested us and our pastoralist system. Recovery will test us further. And so will proving and sharing our sustainable ways with the world. In my view the most important time to really examine our problems is when times are hardest. But as drought ends, and times are better, making sure that we don't forget what we've learned will be our greatest test.
Date published: November 2009
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