According to a November 2016 report published by the National Drought Management Authority, pastoralists in arid regions have suffered huge losses.
Last month, livestock deaths were reported in Garissa, specifically in Ijara, Isiolo (in Oldonyiro, Garbatulla and Kinna) as well as in Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu, Marsabit, Tana River and Taita Taveta.
Climate change is to blame. Research findings released at a climate change conference in Dar es Salaam a few weeks ago show that pastoralists and livestock keepers are most hurt by climate change.
“In the Horn of Africa, arid and semi-arid areas account for more than 60 per cent of the total surface area, with a pastoral population of between 12 million and 22 million people,” stated a World Bank 2014 report.
In Kenya, pastoralists account for 60 per cent of the total population and occupy over 70 per cent of the land mass.
While climate change has drastically changed the fortunes of pastoralists, experts say there is a way out. They say there is a need to find sustainable ways to protect and promote livestock production, which accounts for 12 per cent of Kenya’s gross domestic product.
“Climate change is real. We should create climate change resilience opportunities for pastoralists, as well as new adaptation and mitigation measures,” said Dr Hannington Odame, director of the Centre for African Bio-Entreprenuership in his presentation at the climate change conference.
As animal deaths continue to be reported in Marsabit, where milk production has gone down by 90 per cent — according to the drought management authority — pastoralist Tumal Orto Galdibe is not worried.
He says pastoralism is profitable and the only thing needed are lessons on how to circumvent adverse effects of climate change. He adds that taking good care of livestock is as important as other climate change mitigation measures.
And while many people argue that diversification and sedentary livestock keeping will lessen the effects of climate change, Mr Galdibe believes it is almost impossible for pastoralists to graze on limited pieces of land because they live in dry areas where grass and vegetation is scarce.
“I have not lost a single goat, sheep or camel to drought. All my animals look healthy,” he said during an interview.
Like Mr Galdibe, many pastoralists believe that old adaptation mechanisms of mobility hold the key to curbing harmful effects of climate change.
But even the resilient communities living in arid areas have changed tack as the drought bites. Mr Galdibe, for instance, does not keep cows any more.
“I stopped keeping cattle because they cannot withstand harsh climatic conditions. I keep only goats, sheep and camel. These can trek for long distances in dry and stony regions in search of food and water,” he said.
Goats and sheep can survive at least one week without water while camels can go for 12 to 30 days, a duration impossible for cattle, he said.
According to him, keeping cattle has higher overhead costs and is therefore not profitable. Mr Galdibe asked Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries Cabinet Secretary Willy Bett to help pastoralists cope with the devastating effects of climate change.
Like him, thousands of pastoralists in Kenya hold on to livestock to the point of death because of prestige and tradition. But many are yet to learn how to withstand the adverse weather.
“Climate change is not all negative, it can be exploited and people can benefit from it. What we need is enhanced awareness about weather phenomena and coping mechanisms,” said Dr Odame.
Some coping mechanisms like migration have, however, created tension between communities and led to cross-border conflict, said the deputy director of veterinary services in the Ministry of Livestock, Dr Michael Cheruiyot.
While world temperatures continue to rise unabated, changing the rainfall patterns and increasing the frequency and severity of drought and famine, governments should rise to the occasion and protect pastoralists and other citizens from adverse climate, said Prof John R.S Tabuti, an ethnobotanist at Makerere University during the conference.
“Pastoral areas are vulnerable because of high exposure and low resource grants. Coping mechanisms are also outdated. There is a need to raise adaptive capacities and provide the necessary infrastructure and finances,” he said.
Although there are laws and policies to govern climate change, implementation in East Africa is lacking, said Prof Abdelaziz Gaiballa from Sudan University of Science and Technology.
“We are not short of laws and policies; we are actually very good at making them. But the challenge is implementing them,” he said.