15 May 2006

Kenya: Climate Change Fuelling Conflicts

Nairobi — Once Sambarwawa had water, now it has bodies. Animal carcasses litter the valley, following prolonged drought. And the stench of decay pervades the remote village of Sambarwawa in the heart of Isiolo District.

But, according to an international NGO, Christian Aid, Sambarwawa is not only a graveyard for the animals of local livestock farmers, but also of the nomadic herders.

The high rate at which glaciers are melting in Mt Kenya is an indication that the country is getting warmer.

The pastoralists have also died because of drought; not from starvation or thirst, but as a result of escalating conflict in the area. They were murdered for their water.

In a report to be launched today, the London-based Christian Aid uses the story of Sambarwawa, a makeshift settlement in the hostile northern Kenya, and that of 35-year old Mazeda Begum, a Bangladeshi villager, to depict the "ravages of climate change". The Climate of Poverty: Facts, fears and hope report highlights what the NGO views as the suffering of the world's poor from the effects of global warming.


A staggering 182 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone could die of disease directly attributable to climate change by the end of the century.

"Many millions more throughout the world face death and devastation due to climate-induced floods, famine, drought and conflict, says the report.

Mombasa, Kenya's tourist destination and a key transit point for goods to East and Central Africa, may find itself without water owing to the diminishing springs from Mt Kenya.

"Pestilence, floods, famine and war - an apocalyptic collection indeed - this is a grave crisis for global society and we need global solutions. We all have a role," Christian Aid warns.

The report comes in the wake of violent conflicts over access to water and grazing land in northern Kenya. On July 12, 2005, Borana and Gabra pastoralists clashed in Marsabit, leaving 56 people, including 22 primary school children, dead at a place called Turbi. Area MPs and administrators died in a plane crash as they went to help restore calm last month.

This writer visited Sambarwawa last March, as drought scorched the area. The tour followed reports of violence that claimed seven people early last December. According to area assistant chief Wako Liban, a "small" quarrel over the use of a borehole (on the bed of Sambarwawa river) snowballed into a vicious gun-battle.

By sunrise, seven people had been killed, dozens wounded, and almost 9,000 villagers forced to flee without their livestock. Cattle, goats and camels perished.

The makeshift hamlet sits on an acacia-strewn landscape full of wildlife Ð multi-coloured birds and unique wildlife species. Yet neglect, pervasive poverty, relentless insecurity and a harsh environment Ð temperatures could go beyond 48 degrees during hot season Ð have left it hostile to tourists.

Dry season

Sambarwawa gets inhabited during dry seasons, by pastoralists from neighbouring Wajir, Garissa and Marsabit districts. It is thus a key watering point in northern Kenya. The river has relatively vast quantities of underground water, which can sustain lives for months. Yet, Sambarwawa is a melting pot of the ethnically-fractious north. It is perhaps the only watering point that attracts a multi-ethnic composition, allowing this ethnic blend to co-exist.

By last December, more than 10,000 herders had brought in their livestock, from as far as Marsabit District, almost 250 km away. Others had come from Wajir, which is further than Marsabit.

It all happened on the night of December 4, 2005. By the time the conflict reports reached Nairobi, and the time a rapid response force was assembled, a week had passed. It was too late to salvage Sambarwawa.

A single community had taken control of the settlement and the surrounding river.

The tale is all too familiar. Livestock is brought from the valleys. Herdsmen queue for the next chance to feed their animals. "It's always sort of cafeteria system used here, to ensure everybody has chance to get water for their animals," assistant chief Liban told this writer. For a while, the understanding works well.

But, as water diminished in Sambarwawa, some herders abandoned their dry boreholes and encroached on their neighbours'. "I foresaw conflict building up," said the administrator.

One group pushed to be allowed to water its livestock, another moved to restrict access to the few boreholes that had enough water. Seven people were killed. Mr David Kheyle, 37, described the incident as a free-for-all.

Another conflict occurred 40 days later. Mr Abdi Maalim, a herder, was killed, according to the Christian Aid report.

The report isolates ethnic conflicts and rustling from clashes arising from diminished resources. The conflict, like Naivasha's Maai Mahiu area in January-February last year - where 22 people were killed in fights over a water point on Ewaso Kedong river - is further testimony to the restlessness over access to water and grazing land.

"The link between drought and conflict is widely recognised in Kenya," says The Climate of Poverty: Facts, fears and hope report.

Somehow, conflicts over resources appear to take up an international dimension, raising the "fearsome spectre of war", according to the report. Water shortages could lead to conflict between Kenya and Ethiopia.

Turkana District, which borders Ethiopia, has only two sources of fresh water - the Turkwell and Omo rivers. The Turkwell - has been dammed to generate electricity, reducing its flow downstream.

The Omo, which originates in Ethiopia, is being diverted for irrigation. Very little water is coming into Lake Turkana.

"Turkana people are now very worried because (the river) is turning saline. The lake level has dropped 60 metres over the last 10 years," Prof Eric Odada of International Council of Science told Christian Aid researchers. He warns that rain-fed lakes will dry up, hitting some of the most populated parts of East Africa.

Prof Richard Odingo, the vice-chairman of UK's Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has done research in drought-related conflicts. "During a period of drought, the strongest survive," he told Christian Aid. "You have a lot of conflict because of that. It is related to the struggle for resources, especially water and pastures."

Part of his work involves monitoring climate change. "We have rather frightening evidence. If you go back 50 years, climate is changing fairly rapidly for the worse."

He argues that the glaciers on Mt Kenya have always been there, only fluctuating with droughts and the onset of rains. "But for the first time we are seeing almost the disappearance of the glaciers," his studies reveal.

The Odingo report reveals that the "rapidity with which glaciers are melting shows that Kenya is getting warmer."

The maximum temperature in tea-growing Kericho has increased by 3.5 degrees Celsius, according to Prof S. Wandiga, one of Kenya's eminent scholars. Lamu's maximum temperatures have gone up by three degrees Celsius.

It is not good news for Kenya's tourism. "Cities like Mombasa will be put in a difficult situation because (it) is getting water from Mzima Springs which is fed by the glaciers on Mt Kilimanjaro," says the IPCC chief.

A senior weatherman has also mapped the anticipated catastrophe. Mr Peter Ambeje, the head of forecasting at Kenya Meteorological Department, says: "There seems to be increased frequency and intensity of severe weather and extreme climate events - severe drought - seems to be becoming more prevalent. We can (also) see very high variability in rainfall."

However, Christian Aid fails to note the the diminishing forest cover. With only 1.9 per cent of its land under forest cover, Kenya is among few countries in the world without enough tree cover.

Forest cover

At Independence 43 years ago, the cover was nearly 10 per cent - the level recommended as safe. This was alright, until the government started allocating forests to individuals and a restless economy forced people to resort to wood fuel to meet their energy needs. Palatial homes and ranches now occupy former woodlands.

Yet it is not only Kenya facing catastrophe. Christian Aid says that Bangladesh will be one of the countries hit hardest by climate change. More frequent floods, erosion and rising sea levels could reduce (the country's) land mass by more than a fifth, forcing millions of people to leave their homes and migrate in search of food, water and shelter.

To illustrate the evolving scenario, Christian Aid documents the plight of Ms Mazeda Begum, 35. She had spent her whole life in Balashighat, a village in northern Bangladesh, until the Tista river began to erode the land she lived on.

"For three years in a row, she and her husband and three children were forced to abandon their house and build a new shelter further back from the crumbling riverbank," says The Climate of Poverty: Facts, fears and hope report.

Then in 2000, the river finally swallowed all that remained of their small plot of farmland. Saving only what they could carry, the family had to flee by boat to a raised embankment a kilometre away, built by the government to protect a nearby town from floods.

The situation in Kenya and Bangladesh, warns Christian Aid, is an indication that the ravages of climate are so severe that they could nullify efforts to secure meaningful and sustainable development in poor countries.


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