Article by David Owino
For the seventy-five years he has lived, Joseph Tolua, the village elder at Esonorua village, Kajiado County, has known livestock keeping as the only source of sustenance.
In his community, both skill and stock are passed from one generation to another, and after all these years, Tolua believes he has learnt everything there is to know about livestock keeping. Reasonably so, because from over 500 head of cattle a decade ago, he has none today.
“My deepest fear right now is that we may starve to death,” he says, holding back his tears. “Without livestock, I have no way to earn a living.”
As he walks about an empty shed, which just five years ago held over one hundred head of cattle, Tolua narrates how children in the village, including his own, are steadily dropping out of school and families falling deeper into poverty and depression.
Like Kajiado, many parts of Kenya have been direly affected by prolonged droughts, occurring thrice in the past decade. When we visited Tolua’s home, the area was entering a fifth year without rain.
The IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre – ICPAC has carried out drought surveillance over the years and reports that trends are changing; rapidly, extremely. According to Viola Otieno, who leads Drought Monitoring and Early Warning Systems (for drought) in the region, the latest bout of drought is unprecedented.
“You can see that it is a multi-year drought with five failed consecutive rainfall seasons, and that had not been witnessed before,” she says.
According to a review of data on drought in the Horn of Africa region by ICPAC, the period between 2010 and 2020 witnessed a new trend in droughts attributable to climate change.
“We’re seeing more intense and protracted droughts,” says Otieno.
Out of these droughts, the coping capacities of different communities, especially pastoralists like Tolua, are exhausted. Many of them are falling into poverty.
“All these years, we have relied on each other,” Tolua says, adding that “after each season of drought, whoever is lucky to remain with livestock gives some to the others left with nothing, and we rise again, gradually.”
But this time it’s different for them as almost every household is seeking help.
“If you walked this entire location, you would not find anyone with more than 10 goats, it’s much worse for cattle,” he narrates.
According to Otieno, it boils down to the frequency and compounding of disasters. For example, in places where drought occurred just once in a decade, allowing communities time to recover, now droughts are more frequent and compounded by other disasters like floods.
“We had 2016-2017 drought, and then before five years you already have 2020 happening, and then because it was very prolonged, in essence, there is not enough time for people to recover, and that means we’re seeing the vulnerability increasing, and the resilience of the people going down,” she explains. In the end, she adds, communities are resorting to negative coping mechanisms.
But there is something else unusual happening. What would be described as ‘normal’ migration of pastoralists is becoming impossible as the places they have ordinarily moved to in periods of drought are progressively drying up, yielding little or no pasture at all.
The real story behind the desperate journeys of these pastoralists is that of unsustainable land use, putting many of Kenya’s ecosystems, including primary forests, under unprecedented stress.
According to Simon Onywere, a professor of Environmental Planning and Management at Kenyatta University, the country is staring at the onset of desertification as a result of human activities.
“Look at Mount Kenya,” says Prof. Onywere, zooming on satellite images of the Mount Kenya Forest complex on Google Earth. “This entire place is supposed to be a tropical rainforest, but what is left are isolated pockets of trees and very short shrubs,” he explains as he shows different sides of the complex.
Prof Onywere proceeds to show the level of destruction in three other tropical forests; namely, the Aberdares, Mau Forest complex and Cherangany Forest. He compares satellite images taken over several years, noting that the forests were mainly decimated from the centre out, leaving an impression of thriving ecosystems from the outside, yet space borne photography shows massive destruction.
“No wonder we don’t have enough water in the rivers, because it is in these ecosystems that many rivers have their source,” he says, adding that increased temperatures and episodes of drought will worsen across the country as a result.
As Prof Onywere skims through numerous satellite images of the Mount Kenya complex, he takes interest in the northern side, around Timau. “You can see the forest came all the way here,” he says, scrolling over what today is acres of wheat farms stretching across the landscape.
“If you have been to this area, and particularly the Nanyuki-Isiolo road, you must have realised there are no rivers flowing from the mountain,” he says.
“It is because we don’t have storage of water on the upper part of the forest.”
Due to forest cover loss on the northern side of the mountain, water does not infiltrate the ground, hence there is no discharge of ground water into the rivers.
So much of the Mount Kenya forest cover has been lost that the professor believes its tree volume would not be sufficient for carbon trading if the country tried.
The same situation obtains in the Aberdares and Mau Forest complex, with the latter worst deforested.
Driving towards what is today the reserved forest, it is easy to tell how far the forest boundary has been pushed over the years. Large tracks of what used to be forest land is now agricultural farms, with plantations only interjected by homesteads.
There is even more destruction inside the remaining forest. A drone footage shows that farming and human settlement have persisted, across the complex. Satellite footage that Prof Onywere showed in the maps are consistent with what we found on the ground.
Between 2000 and 2020, Kenya lost approximately 2,850 square kilometres of forest cover, hundreds of square kilometres larger than Kiambu County, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The data suggests that 80 per cent of this loss happened in primary humid forests, like the Mau, Mount Kenya, the Aberdares and others.
Dr Joshua Magero, a senior analyst on global poverty and inequality trends at Development Initiatives, has been tracking data on forest loss and household income trends in the country. He says some of the counties with the highest rates of deforestation are also witnessing significant reduction in household income, pointing to a link between the two factors.
“There are six counties that contribute more than half of the total forest cover loss, and these are Narok, Kilifi, Kwale, Baringo, Bomet, and Nandi,” Dr Magero says, adding that these counties have also experienced significant increases in poverty rates.
Even more disturbing is the current rate of forest cover loss. “Kenya loses about 54 square kilometres of forest cover annually, multiply that over the next two or three decades and you have a disaster,” he says.
But contrary to what many believe, it is not just the diminishing primary forests that is a problem. Prof Onywere, arguing for better land use management in Kenya, says degradation in any part of the country compounds the problem.
“Deforestation affects the areas with forests, but we also need to think of forests in terms of the natural vegetative sponge for storage of moisture, and at that level, even grasslands become forests,” he explains.
Prof Onywere explains that Kenya’s is a typical case of steady desertification occasioned by a lack of land use structures. In addition to degraded forest ecosystems, he demonstrates how destruction of dryland ecosystems is contributing further to drier conditions.
While recent trends indicate that most drylands receive good amounts of rainfall just about once or twice in three to five years, most communities in those areas till their land all through in the hope of receiving rains]. That, according to Prof Onywere, lets out all the moisture from the soil.
In the case of pastoral communities, such ecosystems are depressed by overstocking and subsequent overgrazing, which leaves the land bare and the vegetation unable to regenerate even when it rains.
“And therefore, we are creating a desert; it’s very easy to create a desert, all you need to do is to clear the vegetation on the surface, and don’t allow water to infiltrate into the ground,” Prof Onywere explains.
In spite of the degradation already witnessed, he thinks there is still an opportunity to reverse trends and better protect critical ecosystems. It has to start from better land use management and a sensitization of the public on household contribution to the current situation.
While pastoralists Tolua, who had wandered for years in search of pasture are now back in their homes as the rains continue in many parts of the country, the real reasons behind their fruitless journeys remains unsolved and the country must now urgently address the problem of unsustainable land use.
This story was produced with support from the Rainforest Journalism Fund in partnership with the Pulitzer Center