African nomads to be first people wiped out by climate change

Kenya’s herdsmen are facing extinction as global warming destroys their lands

They are dubbed the ‘climate canaries’ – the people destined to become the first victims of world climate change. And as government ministers sit down in Nairobi at this weekend’s UN Climate Conference, the people most likely to be wiped out by devastating global warming will be only a few hundred miles away from their deliberations.

Those people, according to research commissioned by the charity Christian Aid, will be the three million pastoralists of northern Kenya, whose way of life has sustained them for thousands of years but who now face eradication. Hundreds of thousands of these seasonal herders have already been forced to forsake their traditional culture and settle in Kenya’s north eastern province following consecutive droughts that have decimated their livestock in recent years.

Earlier this year the charity commissioned livestock specialist Dr David Kimenye to examine how the herders are coping with the recent drought, uncovering a disastrous story. Over two months, Dr Kimenye talked to pastoralists in five areas across the Mandera district, home to 1.5 million people.

The study discovered that:

  • Incidence of drought has increased fourfold in the Mandera region in the past 25 years.
  • One-third of herders living there – around half a million people – have already been forced to abandon their pastoral way of life because of adverse climatic conditions.
  • During the last drought, so many cattle, camels and goats were lost that 60 per cent of the families who remain as herders need outside assistance to recover. Their surviving herds are too small to support them.

The new findings follow recent warnings from the UK Met Office that if current trends continue one-third of the planet will be desert by the end of 2100. The scientists modelled how drought is likely to increase globally during the coming century because of predicted changes in rainfall and temperature around the world.

At present, according to their calculations, 25 per cent of the Earth’s surface is susceptible to moderate drought, rising to 50 per cent by 2100. In addition, the areas susceptible to severe drought – 8 per cent – are expected to rise to 40 per cent. And the figure for extreme drought, currently 3 per cent, will rise to 30 per cent.

And what is doubly worrying about Kimenye’s research is that it has revealed that a system of nomadic pastoralism that has, over the centuries, been able to cope with unpredictable weather patterns and regular drought has been brought by climate change to the point of utter extinction.

It is a fact not lost on those who have been forced out of their historic lifestyle to settle at the Quimbiso settlement. Nearby is a stinking pit where the bones of the last of once thriving herds were dumped and burned – victims of the worst drought in living memory.

The families who until a few months ago herded these animals across northern Kenya and beyond now huddle in this riverside settlement, their children prone to malaria and other illnesses, but at least close to a reliable source of water. Now they are completely dependent on aid handouts for most of their food.

‘Our whole life has been spent moving, but we are desperate people. People who have lost our livelihood,’ says Mukhtar Aden, one of the elders at the Quimbiso settlement. ‘We didn’t settle here by choice, it was forced upon us.’

Everywhere are tales of huge livestock losses. In one roadside settlement, which now depends on selling milk from its few remaining animals to passing trucks, a man produces a book recording the dark days of the drought. One entry, for 15 February, shows that the community lost more than 500 sheep and goats and 250 cattle in a single day.

And while rain did came to the region for the first time in more than a year last month, it was too late for the makeshift roadside communities who no longer have animals to put out to pasture.

Wargadud is another sizeable community running along either side of the region’s main road. The chairman of Wargadud’s water users’ association is Abdullahi Abdi Hussein, who describes how the periods of rain have got shorter and the dry spells longer – changing the pattern of four seasons on which the pastoral communities depended.

And while there were always droughts, he says: ‘Decade after decade it has been getting more severe. It has only been getting harder and harder and more and more serious.’

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006