August 19, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Coping with Drought

Kajiado, Kenya

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

“Climate change for us is what is visible,” explained Leina Mpoke, the rural livelihoods manager in Kenya for Concern Worldwide, the Irish humanitarian agency.

What the Maasai in southern Kenya see are shorter drought cycles, ever-more unpredictable rains, less defined seasons.  “The cold season used to end in July, but now it can extend into September,” Leina said on a cool day in mid-August.  “And when the sun shines, people say the sun is closer to us.  It’s noticeably hotter.  By 9 in the morning, people are already sweating.  It used to be 11 or 12 before you would sweat.”

Leina was driving to his home village, a Maasai settlement outside the larger town of Kajiado, south of Nairobi.  He recalled his days in secondary school, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro near the Tanzania border, where maize was once a major crop.

“I remember in 1985-86, there was a bumper harvest.  It was the second biggest maize producing area in Kenya,” he said.  Elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, drought and hunger were raging; in Ethiopia, where the communist government initially denied any problems, hundreds of thousands were dying from famine since 1984.  Food aid from around the world rushed into the region.

“When all of Kenya was eating yellow maize from the U.S., we never saw it in our school,” Leina recalled.  “We just had the white maize that was grown locally.  There was plenty.”

But then, he said, “the climate changed.”  Rains were less abundant.  Smallholder farmers began clearing the surrounding forest, creating more farmland to try and grow more crops.  “When I was in school there, the forest was very deep.  We were afraid to leave school because the forest was so thick,” Leina said.  “Then the poor people cleared the land.”

Now, he said, “when I visit, I am so sad.  The wind takes away the top soil.  The rains don’t come so frequently.  It’s not nearly as productive today.  If the rain isn’t there, what do you do?”

They are doing what they can to cope.  Concern assists with livestock management programs to help the residents continue with their livelihoods.

But in severe droughts, as this year, the livestock is hit particularly hard.  Grasses and bushes dry up.  The cows, sheep and goats lose weight.  Attempts to sell the animals before they die lead to market gluts and falling prices.  Poverty and desperation rise.

New coping strategies kick in.  One is to sell charcoal to make the money needed to buy the maize that now mainly comes from Tanzania and commands premium prices.  Charcoal is make from trees, which leads to more deforestation.

Agnes Lankisa began selling charcoal during the drought and hunger of the mid-1980s.  Now she is a regular in the Kajiado market, sitting beside big bags of charcoal.

“First, I use the money to pay school fees for my children,” she said.  “Second, to buy food, maize.  Right now, the price of maize is the highest ever, and I think it will go higher.”

Agnes said she had cut down all the charcoal-suitable trees on her family’s land and was now buying timber from her neighbors, who also joined in the charcoal business.

“They should stop to protect the environment,” Leina said, “but what alternative do they have?”

He explained that the ideal tree for charcoal is the acacia, the iconic flat topped tree of the African bush.  The acacia, he noted, is also known for producing pods that are eaten by livestock.

“If you cut down the trees, you also lose the pods,” he said.  “The sheep and goats depend on them.”

On the way to his home, Leina stopped and walked to an acacia tree beside the road.  He threw a stone at an upper branch and several brown pods fell.  “These make the goats fat,” he said, picking up the pods for illustration.  “They are very important to continue the pastoralist lifestyle.”

But that lifestyle is under threat as the drought thins the livestock.  So the people turn to charcoal making.  The vicious circle spins.

“The people are under pressure,” Leina said.  “The problem here is resilience.  How do you survive?”

He continued to drive and soon a verdant oasis appeared.  It was a micro-irrigation community development project.  Maize, green peppers, tomatoes, cale, onions, spinach and watermelon grew over several acres.  The garden has been a revelation to a people who have traditionally tended livestock and didn’t grow crops.

“This is proving that we can produce our own food,” Leina said.  “This project is helping us think differently.”

The drip-irrigation scheme, with bore holes and water tanks and pipes and hoses, is too expensive to be replicated on a wider scale.  “In the future, we need to harvest the rain water, we need to build water pans to collect the runoff,” he said.  “We have to improve the soil.  We have to change attitudes.  This is a stimulant for learning.  Here people see.”

What is visible is also what is possible.


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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

» Learn more.
» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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