Over the past several decades, scientists have reported a clear trend in increasing average temperatures with global mean temperatures estimated to have increased by more than 10C above pre-industrial times in the past century. While analysis of historical records indicates that all 23 ASALs counties in Kenya showed a temperature increase of between 0.50C- 1.90C over the last 50 years, Baringo County warmed to 1.80C, between 1960 and 2014 surpassing the 1.50 C limit of the Paris Climate Agreement, according to Pathways to Resilience Economies report of 2018. Rainfall patterns have also changed with the long rainy seasons becoming shorter and the short rainy seasons failing and as a result annual rainfall remains at substantially low levels.
The increased temperatures and unpredictable rainy seasons have exerted augmented pressure on water resources, resulted in less grazing land, diminished livestock herds and increased competition over grazing lands which has heightened outbreak of conflict and insecurities. Evidence from historic climate data sources show that drought frequencies and duration in the county increased from 4 droughts every 10 years in the 1980s to 8 droughts every 10 years in the 2000s. According to the County’s Climate Risk Profile, projections for the period 2021- 2065 indicate the likelihood of increased heat, prolonged moisture stress and increased variability in rainfall which demonstrates higher risks of more deadly impacts spreading at alarming rates within the County.
Long and treacherous walks in search of water
Richard Lotuk, a resident of Chepngatit village, Tiaty Sub-county, discloses that during the dry season people wake up as early as 3am, make long and treacherous walks with flashlights only to reach the nearest water source 2 or 3 hours later. “The trekking distance in search of water increases each season compared to the previous years. The roads here are also inaccessible hence no vehicle or motorbike can help ferry water to our homesteads, you’re lucky only if you have a donkey”, he says.
According to the 2021 Short Rains Rapid Assessment Report, the current average trekking distances from residential areas to watering points stands at 11.3 kilometers, a staggering 89 percent longer than the long-term average walking distance of 6 kilometers during the previous season. This is greatly attributed to the unusual high temperatures and declined rainfall that have led to crop failure, decreased recharge/drying up water sources and poor pasture regeneration.
“Most of the rivers here are seasonal and are running drier every day, making water less for livestock, human and wildlife use and this has constantly induced human wildlife conflicts because we are all sharing water from the same limited source available”, he adds.
Climate change impacts on fragile ecosystems
Kenya’s dry lands are biodiversity rich but as vast areas become more parched and barren due to prolonged drought, changes can be observed in species occurrence and distribution. Thousands of wildlife have succumbed to thirst and hunger with increasing rates at which some species become endangered. Species play a pivotal role as constituents of biodiversity, interacting to make-up the ecosystems upon which we depend for ecosystem goods and services provision. The survival of some of these species is inextricably linked to the support from local communities but climate change has highly stretched their coping capacity hence limiting their conservation efforts.
Lotuk further discloses that they have been digging shallow wells along river beds to trap water but have to guard them because when other people get there first, they steal the water, privatize the areas and conflicts over water use often arise. Additionally, this also exposes the beds to agents of erosion.
The changing climate; a threat multiplier
Kenya’s National Climate Change Action Plan 2018-2022 indicates that pastures are shrinking and functional water sources, including boreholes, dams and pans, drying from prolonged drought. It continues to caution that resource-based conflicts are expected to intensify, inducing pronounced migration of communities, displacement of people, disruption of livelihood activities increasing food insecurity, rising poverty, loss of property, human and livestock fatalities. This increases the vulnerability of the already marginalized communities making each day a struggle for survival.
In Cheptunoiyo village 17km away, Magdalene Kokwon is just arriving home from a 4-hour walking journey to collect water for her family and livestock. Listening to her, you can accurately understand the profound meaning of the phrase “water is life”. For Magdalene, fetching water is a cumbersome daily task particularly because she has a young child. Grazing livestock and walking tens of kilometers to the nearest source even when she was expectant, she could still execute all her house chores because she had no choice, recalls Magdalene.
“Water has become a severe problem in this area,” she shares. Carrying water for long distances induces chest pains, arthritis and birth complications for women. I go in search of water carrying my baby and leave the siblings preparing for school. They often run late waiting for me to bring water to cook tea, sometimes they end up not going to school because the queue at the water source is long. Everyone from the village depends on water from this source,” she says.
Majority of schools in the area have no access to a functional source of clean safe water within 100 metres radius. Boys and girls who have to trek over 10 miles to school are exhausted and dehydrated by the time they get to class. Coupled by starvation at home and lack of school meals due to prolonged drought, this has compromised their concentration on studies, leading to school drop-out. In some schools, enrolment has considerably reduced leading to closure.
According to the acute food insecurity IPC analysis and classification, food security situation in Baringo County drastically worsened in December 2021 compared to August 2021 and the trend is expected to continue following the cumulative effect of consecutive failed rainy seasons. The report further reveals that children under five years are at risk of malnutrition if the drought continues ravaging. This year is not the first-time drought has been declared a national disaster in the country. 1n 2017 more than 2M people were similarly on the brink of starvation. Yet, despite the interventions put in place the ravages of drought have only skyrocketed.
At a crossroads
We are under the shade of a huge acacia tree where the children, youth, women, and some community leaders gather to cool the blazing 360C heat, attending a public participation meeting for the proposed Chepirmorghk borehole water project intended to be implemented by the County Government. They are determined to bear the scorching sun because they regard today as a day of celebration.
Kemoi Chesang who has resided in the village for over 70 years says she has travelled long distances in search of water that it has now become part of her lifestyle. “Due to the extreme heat our bodies become parched, making water collection difficult because it becomes hard to walk for long”, she says. Though feeble and with a croaky voice, she is hopeful that the future could at least be different for the young ones who have accompanied their mothers to this gathering.
Most of the area residents rely on livestock produce for sale and domestic consumption but due to prolonged drought pasture and water are in limited supply. The animals are emaciated, producing no milk and have deprived them of their livelihoods. While one could use livestock to save their family, nobody is willing to buy the livestock as they will only incur losses. “The priced livestock on good days are now a waste,” an elder says.
For Pius Kipsang, the narrative is equally sour. Water scarcity puts the residents in a very tight situation to meet the contending needs. “We cook and forego cleaning and bathing”, he says.
Statistics from World Health Organization depict that 2.2 billion people and beyond a quarter of the global population lives on daily with negligible access to safe and clean water. While an average of 50 litres is required daily for a typical household in Africa, most households barely acquire beyond 20 litres per day in Kenya particularly for the poor and marginalized communities.
“When you want to marry, you must be wise to marry during the rainy season because soon trouble sets in paradise and the previously green areas do not look alluring anymore. It gets hard to win over potential wives amid the three-tier threat of water scarcity, food insecurity and conflicts”, adds Kipsang
The fate of prolonged drought
The residents of this region say that water scarcity has severely threatened their efforts of countering climate change through activities such as tree growing, fruit farming and agroforestry because the trees and their crops do not survive the dry season.
Yegon Komen, a 37-year-old reveals that the water tables have gradually lowered and boreholes that have previously proved to have the most potential to sustain their projects last only a few years and then dry up. “We are desperate, the only water source available nearby is a water pan. It is an open water source shared by livestock, wildlife and human beings. The water is polluted and increases the risk of water related and water-borne diseases”, he expresses
Consequently, the communities have to deal with a heightened cost of living as they have to pay through the nose for water from private vendors and its transportation via motorbikes from Nginyang’ and Chemolingot trading centers, purchase vegetables and foodstuffs as they cannot grow their own as well as seek medical attention when they contract diseases from consuming contaminated water.
A call to action in reviving withered hope for the communities
With the recent IPCC report warning that every fraction of increase in temperature spells more deadly consequences, more progress is required to strengthen response mechanisms to protect communities against the impacts of climate change. As the world builds momentum towards UN COP27 anticipated to be held in Egypt this year, leaders also need to place communities at the center of these dialogues to enhance effectiveness of the proposed climate solutions. Of great importance, there is necessity to consult with those affected and at the frontlines of the climate crisis regarding alternative livelihoods before implementation of adaptation plans. Moreover, the sufficient and meaningful engagement of marginalized groups including youth, women, indigenous people would increase the efficacy of adaptation mechanisms and build resilience to prevent over-reliance on humanitarian assistance.