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Ever on the brink of disaster

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Farmers guide their livestock in the arid region of Mandera, Kenya

Earlier this month, I participated in a four-day mission to Mandera, a county in northeastern Kenya, some 640 km from Nairobi on the Somali border. The European Commission’s Humanitarian Agency (ECHO) arranged the mission to assess progress of various community-managed drought risk reduction initiatives.

We visited several projects being implemented across Mandera’s central, northern and eastern districts, an area which is home to more than a million people, according to the last census in 2009. The area is classified as arid and receives on average 250 mm of rainfall in a good year. But for the last several months, not a single drop of rain has fallen and all water reserves have been depleted. Famine could be imminent in Mandera and its neighboring counties if policies are not put in place to prevent it.

Being my first visit to Mandera the mission was eye-opening but also disquieting, coming as it did in the midst of what is now accepted as “the most severe drought in the Horn of Africa in the last 60 years”.

I didn’t hear of people who’ve died of starvation in Mandera in recent weeks or months. Neither did I see decomposing livestock carcasses. But, as in many of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid areas, the drought is most severe at the household or family level. Its worst effects get transmitted through livestock, the most important asset for most farming families. Ownership of livestock reflects a family’s social standing, and camels and “shoats”—a common collective terminology for sheep and goats—have the highest value.

Even in current critical times, selling of livestock remains an unpopular do-or-die alternative.  In the case of Mandera, the drought has affected many families’ livestock first by decimating their primary source of food— milk and meat—but also by devaluing if not completely wiping out their only store of wealth. Families do their best to save the livestock by trekking hundreds of kilometers in harsh temperatures to search for the region’s few pastures and watering holes.

A few good things are happening in Mandera in spite of the crisis. First, relief supplies from Kenya’s government continue to flow as they did before the drought. True, a lot more needs to be done about the numbers of supplies, their regularity and the adequacy of controls to ensure that exactly what needs to be delivered reaches only the intended beneficiaries, but at least supplies are getting through, due in part to  complementary relief efforts by the World Food Program, USAID and other humanitarian agencies.

Second, some institutions are “trucking” water to many areas in the region even though the heavy trucks aggravate already-bad roads, and delivery is difficult because of the scattered nature of human settlement across Mandera. The predominantly rural county rambles over nearly 26,000 km2 with an average density of only 40 people per km2. The water, though, is helping ease the pressure of the drought.

An outstandingly good report is that communities have developed practical coping strategies against the drought. Mostly, these strategies are rooted in knowledge handed down through generations. An NGO worker based in Mandera shared with me how, with a fair degree of accuracy, pastoralists are able to predict rainfall patterns based simply on their reading say, of how specific desert plants blossom; the type and density of cloud cover; or, the ethology of their livestock. Unexplained aggressiveness by certain animals or their reluctance to graze even when there is sufficient pasture are potential harbingers of a drought. Such a prediction is immediately discussed with local sages, who ultimately select from a range of available strategies. The specific strategy or group of strategies adopted depends on the severity of the predicted “shock”. In recent years, droughts have become ever more severe, and the best strategy often involves the splitting of herds into groups and scattering them in various locations, including across the border to Ethiopia.

A brief note on the resilience and resourcefulness of women in this crisis. Throughout the three-district visit, I observed women and girls herding goats or rolling jerry cans of water on the way to their homesteads. I saw women with bundles of firewood on their backs. At a relief food distribution centre in Shimbirr Fatuma, a town located in Mandera central, I saw women collecting their family rations and pushing the rations home in makeshift wheelbarrows. The mission team attended a weekly meeting of a women’s savings and loan group that was set up by Care-Kenya and Financial Sector Deepening (FSD). When I asked the women what they spend their borrowed money on, they said they use it to build houses, start businesses, mostly kiosks, and educate their children.

Despite their outstanding coping strategies and remarkable resilience in the face of adversity, the communities I met in Mandera seemed to be permanently on the precipice. It is clear, for instance, that the human and livestock numbers have overtaken the land’s capacity and the natural resources therein. Further population growth of man and beast will certainly push the environment over the cliff.

Similarly, livelihoods are already at their merest. Any shock—a sick child, a livestock disease outbreak, an enemy invasion, which is not unlikely along the 200km pervious border with Somalia—can translate into a disaster, sometimes with irreversible effects.


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