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East Africa: Pastoralists and climate change

NewsNotes, September-October 2008

In its newly released report quoted below, Oxfam International writes that pastoralists in East Africa’s arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) need to be empowered to adapt to, and survive, climate change. “Pastoralists across East Africa are starting to learn to live with the reality of climate change, adapting as they can to its impact.”

The report says that climate change has manifested itself in these areas with successive poor rains, frequent droughts and unpredictable and sometimes heavy rainfall, causing floods and disease. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change model for East Africa shows a two-to-three degree Celsius increase in temperature for the region by the 2080s and more intense rainfall during the October-December rainy season sooner than that. This could be good news (increase in the productive potential of land with more rain) and bad news (loss of land to agricultural encroachment, loss of cattle to heat stress, spread of diseases that thrive in the wet season).

However, climate change is only one of the problems the pastoral communities are forced to face. Others include political and economic marginalization, inappropriate development policies based on experience in the temperate grasslands and stable conditions of North America, and increasing resource competition. John Letai, the regional Pastoral Livelihoods Coordinator for Oxfam International in Kenya, calls pastoralists among the poorest and most vulnerable people, marginalized on the basis of geographical remoteness, ethnicity and livelihood. Letai added that the introduction of alternative livelihood options for the pastoralists, whereby grazing land was used for crop cultivation and conservation, was not benefiting them. “We need to empower them [pastoralists], by formulating and implementing policies in their favour,” he said.

“Governments in the region have, historically, had little economic and political interest in promoting pastoralists’ interests, as they tend to see pastoralists as a ‘minority vote’ that isn’t worth winning,” the report said. In Kenya, the government has expressed its commitment to the arid areas, creating the Ministry for the Development of Northern Kenya and Arid Lands, headed by Mohammed Ibrahim Elmi. “Pastoralists are the best custodians of the arid areas,” Elmi said. He said the government had not done enough to improve the lives of pastoralists in ASAL areas. “For the past century pastoralists in Kenya have suffered the consequences of poor decisions taken by those charged with planning and decision-making.” (IRIN, Aug. 19)

The minister said there was need to improve pastoralists’ access to healthcare, education, support for livestock production and marketing, rural electrification, tourism, energy supply and debunking the myths associated with pastoralism.

According to an August 18 field mission report, “Pastoralists living on the edge in Kenya,” released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, climate change also plays a crucial role in inter-ethnic conflicts among the pastoralist communities in northern Kenya. Thousands of environmental refugees flee from drought, which results in pasture and water shortages for livestock. The report says pastoralists living in the ASAL areas are bearing the brunt of adverse consequences, particularly food insecurity due to droughts, floods and livestock diseases.

“There is a humanitarian crisis looming in Northern Kenya as pastoralists have resorted to eating wild fruits and gum arabica to contain hunger. This is a community which has been self-reliant on food as the majority of them were farmers,” the OCHA report said, adding: “It is about time donors and government reconsider their strategies and empower pastoralist communities by directing funding support to pastoralists’ institutions.” In its report, Oxfam recommended that governments within East Africa protect the land and resource rights of pastoralists, eliminate inappropriate development policies and provide support to the pastoralist communities through cash payments in place of food aid. “Pastoralists can and should play a role in shaping their own future,” Oxfam said.

The entire report is available here.


“In sub-Saharan Africa mobile pastoralism is predominantly practiced in arid and semi-arid lands. These lands are hot and dry, with low and erratic rainfall. There are not many livelihoods suited to this unpredictable environment, but pastoralism is particularly appropriate, because it enables people to adapt by moving livestock according to the shifting availability of water and pasture.

“Pastoralism makes a significant contribution to gross domestic product (GDP) in many East African countries (around 10 percent in Kenya); it provides the majority of meat consumed in those countries; and provides a livelihood for tens of millions of people who live there. Pastoralists are the custodians of dryland environments, providing services through good rangeland management including biodiversity conservation and wildlife tourism.

“Despite providing such value, pastoralists in East African countries tend to have the highest incidence of poverty and the least access to basic services compared with other areas. In the pastoralist areas of northern Uganda, 64 percent of the population live below the poverty line, compared with 38 percent nationally.” (From “Survival of the Fittest, Pastoralism and Climate Change in East Africa,” Oxfam International, August 2008.)
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