Struggling against drought in Turkana

A five-year drought in the Turkana district of Kenya’s Rift Valley Province threatens the traditional pastoralist lifestyle of its communities, who up to now had managed to survive in the harsh, arid climate of northwestern Kenya.

Water and grazing land have become so precious, in fact, that there has been an increase in the use of small arms to settle disputes over what little resources remain.

The current situation is the cumulative result of a drought that commenced after the 1999 El Niño rains and has persisted ever since. In July 2004, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared a state of national emergency and said the country would be in need of food relief until the beginning of 2005.

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) announced in May that two million Kenyans would need food aid at least until August.

Arguably, no other region in Kenya has been harder hit by this drought than Turkana. Against the backdrop of its majestic landscape stands a proud culture in danger of losing its long-running struggle against the environment.

Five years of little-to-no rain has choked Turkana’s pastoralist-based society. This has meant a tragic loss of human life, livestock and livelihood for the people of Turkana. The region is seemingly stuck in a revolving door of the drought’s devastating effects.

Herding livestock is the cornerstone of the Turkana’s existence. Consecutive drought produces obvious depletions of this key community resource. Most riverbeds have long-since dried up, and apart from relief agency-sponsored bore holes, there is no water.

April and May are meant to be the long-rains months for Turkana. This year, the rains have been sporadic and unpredictable, according to recent reports by NGOs.

For most people of the region, livestock is a "living bank" - a savings account that equals cash. In some parts of Turkana the drought has wiped out 70 percent of the livestock. For the affected families this means losing 70 percent of their savings. In this scenario, many go bankrupt and whole lives are shattered.

Since April of 2004, Turkana’s urban settlement of Lodwar, 175 km southeast of Lokichokio, has been the staging ground for an emergency hunger-relief campaign conducted by the British-based, international poverty-eradication organisation, Oxfam-GB, in partnership with WFP and the Kenyan government. Today, the relief effort continues to feed up to 60 percent of the population.

A mission hospital in nearby Kakuma is faced with a range of diseases brought on by drought and poverty, including malnutrition.

Up to 30 percent of children under age five in the Turkana district are malnourished as a result of the prolonged drought.

Deirdre O’Gorman, who works in the hospital, has seen an alarming amount of underweight children with weak immune systems fall prey to an endless cycle of illnesses.

"There are lots and lots of malnourished children out in the community," O’Gorman told IRIN during a visit in March. "Only the very severe ones are admitted to hospital. At the moment there are maybe two or three per day coming into hospital."

Assessment reports have said the drought-affected districts throughout Kenya indicate a general increase in malnutrition rates. As the drought has deepened, child malnutrition in some districts has gone well over the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global acute malnutrition (GAM) critical threshold of 15 percent. GAM has exceeded 20 percent and 30 percent in Marsabit and Turkana, respectively, according to a report issued by the International Federation of the Red Cross in July 2004.

Additionally, as able-bodied men migrate with their livestock in search of pasture, they leave behind children, women and the elderly who have no choice but to purchase their food. For most there is little to no money to exercise this option.

Perhaps one of the worst outcomes of Turkana’s five-year drought is the rise in armed conflict, especially along the border region of Uganda. Increasingly, the Turkana are resorting to using guns in their battle to preserve their way of life. Skirmishes over scarce watering holes, pasture and livestock are a part of daily life here.

"People are competing for the little available resources," George Otim, Oxfam’s humanitarian projects coordinator in Lodwar, told IRIN. "There is a lot of conflict, especially on the grazing and also the raiding of the animals.

"If the situation continues, we’re going to see more conflict because people will be migrating into areas where there will be pasture," Otim added. "There is going to be inter-ethnic conflict where, even at the border area, people will be fighting and [it] will be resulting in a lot of death and a lot of orphans."

Natirra, roughly 50 km south of Lokichokio, is one such community scarred by conflict. Its residents have lost their entire livestock herds to raiders. No food will grow in the dry earth, and they have barely any means of making money.

Despite the fact that the Turkana are accustomed to such a harsh existence and are determined to preserve their way of life, serious doubt exists about their ability to survive if the drought continues.

Anthony N’jogo is the projects coordinator for Intermediate Technology Development Group in Lodwar. He fears there is little hope for the longevity of the pastoralist way of life. According to N’jogo, there has to be a complete transition from the pastoralist-based economy towards more sustainable micro-industries.

If this turnaround doesn’t occur and the drought deepens, the Turkana "will be forever dependent upon relief agencies for them to live day by day", N’Jogo said.

Developing a way out of the drought’s downward spiral in Turkana requires a better integration of the community into Kenya’s mainstream economy.

"One of the things we have to learn from all of this is that the level of vulnerability in the area really requires a considerable amount of investment and engagement on the part of the bigger economic picture in Kenya, with the Turkana, and all the pastoralists," Josie Buxton, Oxfam’s humanitarian programme coordinator for Kenya, said.

This begins, she said, with a larger recognition of the pastoralist’s way of life and the global community’s ethical obligation in helping preserve it.

"The Turkana offer something completely different [to Kenya and the global economy]," Buxton continued. "This isn’t about call centres, or the electronics industry."

The alternative micro-economies the Turkana can provide include aloe farming, indigenous crafts, irrigated agriculture and quick-to-market livestock products.

"They have so much to offer – if only it was formally recognised within the Kenyan economy," Buxton said.