The Devastation of the Climate Crisis in Kenya

I see two young girls, a little over 6 years old, fetching water from a dirty water pan. They are filling a 20 litre jerry can that, once full, weighs almost as much as they do. They push it home for more than a kilometre, walking along roads littered with rotting animal carcasses – the dead bodies of cattle that have neither pasture nor water to sustain them. I am a visitor in Isiolo County, Northern Kenya. But this is the daily reality for a great many communities here in Africa.

Northern Kenya is deep into a severe and prolonged drought right now. There has been no rain for over two years. Households have been completely devastated by loss of livestock. One homestead I visited had a herd of 50 cattle and 30 goats before the drought. Now they have just 2 cows and 1 goat left. These pastoralist communities depend on their animals as a source of income to put food on the table, take their children to school, and buy water – which is becoming a rare and expensive commodity. 

Women and children are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis – and the situation in Isiolo County is a shocking example of what this looks like. Women have to walk extraordinary distances just to fetch water. So many of their water sources have completely dried up. The wells that do remain are dangerous to access. They are deep and surrounded by quick-sand, with no living vegetation left to hold the earth in place. We heard about a young man who was buried alive inside one of those wells – it collapsed as he was gathering water. 

With rising water scarcity, women become more vulnerable to gender based violence. Women farmers in the western parts of Kenya told me how periods of drought cause conflict in their homes because they do not have water to clean the house, clean the clothes and provide water for bathing. It was also shocking to hear that, with cases of rape becoming rampant, some now head to the water source at midnight in order to avoid long queues with their daughters.

Malnutrition is everywhere, with children eating only one meal a day. In Isiolo County, water and food insecurity are now so severe, that even the school feeding programmes have been stopped. The climate crisis has pushed these communities beyond their capacity to adapt. As we drove through the region, we came across caravans of people carrying their belongings. They have lost everything to the drought and their homes have become unlivable. The only choice left is to migrate. 

The drought has had a profound economic impact. Pastoralists are being forced to move further and further away from established markets, making it hard for them to draw any kind of income. The remaining livestock are sold at exorbitant prices and products such as milk now go for double the price they did before the drought. Rising inflation is making a bad situation worse. Diversification options are limited. Farmers are already struggling to practice agriculture on irrigated lands and most other potential livelihoods depend on a stable climate. 

The climate crisis is a human tragedy and an intolerable injustice. Countries in the African region are least responsible for causing the climate crisis but are among the most vulnerable to its impacts (IPCC). Ours is the second largest and most populous continent in the world – yet accounts for just 0.5% of historical emissions and less than 4% of the global emissions today. 

A couple of months ago, the COP27 international climate change conference took place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. African politicians and civil society alike continue to call for climate justice. Justice means the rich countries that caused this crisis finally keeping their promises, and delivering the financial resources required for us to adapt and shift to a clean economy. Justice means those leaders fully acknowledging that climate impacts are now beyond many communities’ capacity to adapt – and to showing real solidarity by establishing a dedicated finance facility for loss and damage.

Critical conversations about the climate crisis have for too long happened in closed rooms and elite policy corridors, where very few people understand the lived reality of frontline communities. So many leaders and negotiators have never seen the devastation I have seen with my own eyes. It is time for a revolution in the climate negotiation space. We must make these spaces accessible and put people – particularly those most impacted – at the heart of every decision we make. 

As a child, I felt peaceful and secure. When I think of those two girls fetching water, the women and girls who are afraid of being raped, I cannot believe how drastically everything has changed. I pray that the COP Process will deliver something for them. And I dream of a time when African children will feel peaceful and secure again.

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