RC/RCCC Notes from the Field: Experiences of Drought in Turkana County

Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program
by Sarah Posner

Sarah Posner is the 2019 Junior Researcher in the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre (RCRCCC) program. She is a Masters student in the Geography Department at University of Colorado Boulder.

View photo gallery in the field by Sarah Posner

I peer out the window of the turbulent plane that dips up and down in the hot air. Below lay a series of dendritic tributaries that spread like fingers across the dry landscape. I am on my way to Lodwar, Turkana to collect primary data on the impacts of drought on the ground. Turkana is the largest county, located in the furthest corner of northwestern Kenya, and is believed to be the birthplace of humanity where archaeologists found the oldest skeletal remains of the famous ‘Turkana boy’. I am meeting with key stakeholders who engage in disaster risk management as well as attending a focus group discussion with members of a local Turkana community experiencing the drought first hand. The aim of the trip is to formulate a case study that will be presented at the upcoming national dialogue, which brings together county and national government officials, NGOs, and donors to discuss implementation of the Forecast based Financing system.

It hasn’t rained for months in many parts of Kenya, with two consecutive failed rainy seasons, which has put 2.6 million Kenyans at risk of food insecurity (Daily Nation, 2019). This is a significant increase from the estimated 1.6 million people that was established in May 2019 (NDMA, 2019). The situation is especially bad in this hot, remote and arid area of the country, where pastoral societies have beared the brunt of the impacts, many facing starvation. These counties include Turkana, as well as Mandera, Baringo Wajir, Garissa, Marsabit and Tana River in the pastoral livelihood zones, plus Kitui, Makueni, Kilifi, Meru North in the marginal agricultural and agro-pastoral areas (NDMA, 2019).

When I arrive in Lodwar, the temperature is 36°C (about 97°F), and the sun beats down on my shoulders. I squint my eyes and make out a Landcruiser approaching in the distance bearing the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) emblem. The car grinds to a halt, kicking up dust. A woman by the name of Rakodia steps out of the passenger side to greet me, who is the director of the cash transfer program at the Turkana Red Cross branch. Rakodia will be supervising my stay here in Turkana. She welcomes me with a warm smile, a firm handshake, and we get in the car and head over to the branch office. There, I meet the county coordinator, Nicholas Thuo, who has scheduled the various interviews I will be conducting throughout the course of the day.

First on the list is a meeting with an officer named Dennis from the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA). The NDMA is an agency of the Government of Kenya mandated to establish mechanisms which ensure that drought does not result in emergencies and that the impacts of climate change are sufficiently mitigated in the arid, drought-prone counties of Kenya (NDMA, 2019). We meet to discuss data availability and limitations to forecast drought, which is at the forefront of work by the NDMA. During the meeting, we discuss the use of the Vegetation Condition Index (VCI) for drought monitoring. The VCI gives an idea where the observed value of vegetation condition is situated between the extreme values (minimum and maximum) compared to previous years. Expressed as a percentage, lower values indicate bad vegetation while higher represent good vegetation conditions, which are standardized internationally. However, the lack of specificity within the VCI is one drawback of the measure as it covers all vegetation types, even those unpalatable to livestock. This is problematic in the case of Turkana where Prosopis, an invasive species of mesquite, has greened the landscape but is not edible for livestock and is often referred to as a “dryland demon” by locals. As the map in Figure 1 shows, Turkana appears to have relatively good vegetation conditions compared to its neighbors due to the coverage of Prosopis.

This masks the reality of the situation on the ground, as the county continues to suffer a devastating drought that is killing off livestock. Thus, I learned from seeing the landscape first-hand that using the VCI for drought monitoring has drawbacks as it paints greener pastures than the reality of the situation on the ground.

Next, we travel to a remote village along a dusty road to engage in a focus group discussion with the local Turkana people. I am met by a larger group than I was expecting of about 25 to 30 people of all ages, ranging from grandmothers to young children, sitting in a half circle under the shade of an acacia tree. The community is excited to have a new visitor, and I am greeted with a warm welcome. I introduce myself and describe my intentions for the visit, which is to hear from the locals about their first-hand experience of the impacts of the unfolding drought in their area. A translator is there to help relay the message in Turkana, the local dialect spoken by the community. 

An older gentleman stands up, acting as the representative for the community and begins: “We have many stories about drought, more than 10 problems. I will only speak of one problem for now, and let others tell their stories.”

“We are here through God’s will, but the big problem we face is water. There is no water here, and the only source we are getting water from is the river.” He points in the distance, referring to the Turkwell river, located several kilometers away. He continues, “The young people fetch water from there, but the old people will not drink there. The trekking distance is far, and one injured his leg in the rocky river bed when he went to fetch water just the other day. This is one problem we face, that is access to a water source.”

A younger man in a powder blue, button down shirt now stands; it is his turn to tell his story, “Poverty is the big one. Before we were eating wild fruits, but now we can’t use that formula. The community wants now drugs for our animals. Another problem we face is animals, they were our solutions to our problems. But the drought took them all, even one community member does not have any goats. Before, my father was killing animals like goats, cattle, and sheep when visitors come when there was lots of livestock, but we can’t even compare to the situation now.” Read more …

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