Is it global warming starting to impact negatively on millions of people in Africa, or is a normal weather cycle merely turning to bring prolonged drought? It’s a question being asked with some urgency in Kenya. This East African republic was once the first choice of wealthy white settlers attracted by rich agricultural land and the pleasant climate of the interior highlands. After independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya’s economy did fairly well but it was dependent on agriculture and the sector eventually went into steady decline.
Large areas in the north and east of Kenya are hot and dry. Inhabitants rely on wells to sustain a pastoral way of life, husbanding livestock or trying to scratch a subsistence living from poor soil. These remote, semi-arid lands make up 80 per cent of the country and when the rains were patchy in 2008, those occupying this inhospitable terrain were hard hit – not least because, for many, that year saw the third poor harvest in succession.
In 2009 the long rains failed again in many parts of Kenya, with disastrous consequences for the whole country. Large numbers of cattle died of thirst, crops never germinated and the price of Kenya’s staple food – maize – rocketed, putting terrible strain on the urban poor who simply couldn’t afford to eat. Nearly half the population already lived in poverty and before long as many as ten million Kenyans were in need of food aid. Despite the determined efforts of international agencies to help, malnutrition was rife along with associated diseases like cholera, malaria, Rift Valley fever and Kala Azar that stealthily invaded the nation. Children were, as always, particularly vulnerable. If climate change does indeed inhibit the regular rains that East Africans rely on for survival, Kenya’s future looks bleak indeed.
Death toll: Unknown, but acute malnutrition and disease has killed tens of thousands since the long drought began.
You should know: A hazard faced by rural populations already in dire straits is violence, in 2009 over 400 deaths were reported as cattle rushing and banditry became rife.