|Land used by nomads is fast becoming desert as the drought worsens [Picture: Save the Children]|
In Takaba town in north east Kenya, a crowd of people gather around a camel. The so-called ship of the desert has been weakened by drought and can barely move. When this happens, it takes an entire village to put it back on its feet.
Despite their best efforts the villagers are unable to lift the camel. After two hours of huffing and puffing, they have no choice but to leave the camel to die in the sun. They too have been weakened by the dry spell.
Habiba Ibrahim, the owner of camel, watched the animal with tears in her eyes: “There is nothing I can do. There is no grass to give it due to the drought. This is one of my two remaining camels. The rest have all died.”
The relentless drought across East Africa is worsening because of global climate change and the continued destruction of forests, grasslands, wetlands and other critical ecosystems, the United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP) is warning.
The Kenyan government says nearly four million people are now close to starvation after the rains have failed for three straight years.
Mwai Kibaki, the Kenyan president, has declared the drought a national disaster and appealed for $150 million to feed the hungry.
Rural areas like northern Kenya, which have suffered decades of neglect and under-development, are most affected, with livestock herders particularly at risk.
These are areas with little access to education, healthcare, water and sanitation – making them even more vulnerable.
Cattle and goats – the weakest of the livestock species reared here, began dying a long time ago. In some places, livestock grazers have already lost entire herds to drought and disease.
We met Abdille Qayleey in the village of Jowhar just outside Wajir town. He had 200 goats when the rains first failed. Today he has just 25 and they are too weak to provide a livelihood for his family of eleven.
“We have never seen a drought as bad as this,” he told us. “In the past, droughts used to spare some places where we pastoralists would move to escape the drought. This drought has spared no place and no one. If it doesn’t rain soon the people will begin dying.”
Water is a scarce commodity for both man and beast. Wells have dried up and the few that still contain water are overused.
‘Carcass-strewn watering holes’
What were once grazing land for nomads is fast turning into desert and it is the distance between pasture and water that is weakening the livestock further.
People come to the few boreholes still drawing water from more than 70-km away in search of water. The scene around it is horrific, carcass after carcass is strewn around the watering point – cattle and sheep mostly.
|Families have been forced to share scant food aid with livestock [Picture: Save the Children]|
Some are now skeletons, others are in the process of losing their scant flesh to scavengers, and some are newly fallen, breathing their final breaths with their noses in the dust.
A group of women driving a donkey laden with containers of water told us they had been on the road for more than 15 hours in search of water.
“We have weak livestock at home. We are forced to provide them with water by such means. We will have to come back again after a few hours rest,” they said.
The drought situation is so bad in northern Kenya that the herdsmen have been forced to share what little food they receive from aid agencies with their weak animals.
People have also been forced to sell their assets, such as their remaining livestock, alleviating short term hunger but exacerbating long-term problems.
We visited the livestock market in Wajir, where scores of people gathered early to haggle over their remaining stock amid the swirling dust.
The livestock are so weak that the sellers know they won’t make it back to their grazing areas alive; it’s sell them or lose them and as a result it’s a buyer’s market.
Prices have hit rock bottom, you can now buy a cow for around 300 Kenyan shillings – about four US dollars. Sheep, goats and camels are also on sale for measly amounts.
“There is little respite in sight for these people… Weather experts are predicting that floods caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon will follow the drought”
You can see that the animals are suffering. There is now almost no pasture in the entire area and their hide is stretched tight over their protruding bones.
The people too are stressed. They have little bargaining power. They either settle for the humiliating prices on offer or turn them down and risk losing everything on the long walk back. Either way, the descent into poverty is assured.
But people here don’t understand climate change – the cause of their predicament.
“How can man change the climate or stop rain? It is God’s will that we are facing a drought. And we pray to him to alleviate our suffering.” Halima Hassan, a 30-year-old mother of three whose livestock was wiped out by the drought, tells us.
As conditions worsen, conflict is breaking out between human beings and wildlife. Wild animals often come to settlements in search of water and attack herdsmen villages on an almost daily basis.
Frequent fights by nomads over dwindling resources have caused much destruction in this desolate region.
Yet there is little respite in sight for these people. Weather experts are predicting that floods caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon will follow the drought.
If that occurs the suffering we are now witnessing will pale in comparison to what will come.