Pastoral communities in East Africa have been hit hardest by a historic drought.
It’s 8 in the morning, when a group of Maasai pastoral women in Kajiado County, Kenya, begin their long journey to the Ewaso Ngiro river in the Rift Valley, which has been contaminated by horticultural activities upstream. It will take them 7 hours to return.
They used to transport water on the backs of donkeys, but since the advent of the drought, livestock is scarce. And, although the unclean water carries diseases like cholera and diarrhea, this part of Kenya has almost no access to healthcare; they must make do with what they find.
This is the everyday reality of rural Africans in the era of climate change, where a La Niña-induced historic drought continues to ravage East Africa — namely Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and northern Uganda, causing extreme water scarcity and mass livestock death. These countries form the Horn of Africa, one of the most conflict-affected regions in the world, and are experiencing what experts have called the “world’s worst acute food insecurity emergency of 2022”.
For the fourth consecutive time, the rainy season has failed in East Africa and is likely to fail yet again in the short rains period from October to December this year.
The locust infestation that swept across the Horn of Africa in 2020 added to the food crisis. Over 20 million people are reeling from the effects of the drought, with many areas on the brink of localized famine. Over 1.8 million children are facing life-threatening malnutrition. To make matters worse, food prices are soaring due to global inflation.
Pastoralist and agro-pastoralist rural communities, who are typically accustomed to the dry region, are facing extreme hardship; their traditional methods of sustenance cannot keep up with four consecutive droughts, and a fifth on the way.
Women and children are most affected by the crisis. Families falling short of income are unable to pay school fees. So, girls as young as 12 often drop out of school, are married off, and are forced to undergo female genital mutilation, mimicking conditions during COVID-19 school closures.
In Kenya, 3.5 million people in 23 counties are in need of humanitarian assistance, but it is the women and children who face the brunt of the drought.
Mana Omar, a 27-year-old Indigenous climate justice advocate and meteorologist, who belongs to the Maasai pastoral community in Kajiado county, has seen the impacts of the drought, firsthand.
“On the long journey to fetch water from the river, women encounter human-wildlife conflict. There is also a problem of rape. Women who fetch water may meet herders along the way. They say, ‘You are the wives of the men who are our agemates’, so they feel entitled to their bodies. It is because of their [backwards] mindset,” she told Currently.
In the Maasai community, boys who are circumcised at the same time, as part of a male rite of passage, are known as agemates. These age groups determine the Maasai social system.
The treatment of women in these communities exemplifies how patriarchy and climate change interact – proving once again that the climate crisis is a social justice issue, it is a feminist issue.
“There is also a lot of food insecurity, and this can be attributed to large families. A woman has no say in the number of children she wants to have, she just gives birth uncontrollably. The family becomes too big,” said Omar.
The staple food is Ugali — which is made from maize flour, and milk. Vegetables rarely form a part of their diet due to the drought. The incomplete diet afflicts the community with health problems.
Omar said that livestock is the community’s main source of income and food, and since the drought has eradicated pastures, animals cannot survive. As a result, many families choose to marry off their daughters, in exchange for a dowry, in the form of cows and goats.
Many community members are, therefore, forced to relocate to cities. Here, they become security guards, cleaners, or tend to farms for people in urban centers –– work that does not require formal education.
“I have come across women waking up at 3 a.m., to go look for pastures for their livestock. Some women even take on the role of men, they are digging wells in far places for water. These conditions give rise to violent conflict over the limited resources,” said Issa Mohammed, a climate activist from the Borana pastoral community and Isiolo County Environmental Social Safeguard Officer.
“The children and women are most affected. We recently had a conflict between the Borana and the Samburu communities [in Isiolo County]. Of the eight that died, five were young children and mothers.”
Multiple areas of Somalia face a risk of famine, amidst drought and insecurity. The worst affected include Somaliland, Puntland, Galmudug, Hirshabelle, and Jubaland.
Half the population — 7.1 million people — are facing water scarcity, and about 1.5 million children under the age of 5 are in need of nutritional support. UNICEF reported that at least 500 children in Somalia have already died of malnutrition this year. Over 3 million livestock have died since 2021, causing income loss for pastoralist communities.
98 percent of women in Somalia have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. School holidays between July and August translates to “cutting season” for them. Now that families are unable to pay school fees due to loss of income, girls out of school are more likely to be forced to undergo this dangerous practice.
“In the last 40 years, we haven’t seen a drought like this. If we don’t act fast, we might be in the same situation as in 2011, when a famine killed 260,000 people, half of them were children,” Iman Abdullahi, country director of CARE Somalia, told Currently.
The United Nations’ Somalia Humanitarian Response Plan needs USD 1.5 billion to support relief in the region, but only 42 percent has been reported against the required amount.
Complicating the issue, 2022 marks the 31st year of civil war in Somalia. Most of rural Somalia is still controlled by al-Shabab, a Somalia-based violent insurgent group that carries out attacks in Somalia, and neighboring Kenya.
“Some of the areas most affected by the drought are under their [al-Shabab] control. We are not able to access these areas. It is very difficult to know what they are going through. We try our level best, using local partners to reach them. Civilians support us, but it is not easy,” said Abdullahi.
The conflict and drought have displaced many Somalis who are forced to live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.
A similar tale follows Ethiopia, where the drought has caused many people to leave their homes in search of water. At least 500 hundred families have been internally displaced, and are living in makeshift homes in Kebribeyah, Ethiopia’s dry Somali Region.
“I can’t count the number of people that were displaced with us,” Ardo, a mother who fled from the Kabtinag village in the Somali region, told the UNHCR. “Nearly everyone in the village has left.”
Reports by UNICEF show that the number of children suffering from malnutrition could reach 900,000 in the coming months.
Tribal communities, such as the Borana community, which used to inhabit the south-central parts of Kenya, Oromia, are migrating towards cities.
“Their lifestyle has been threatened by irregular rainfall and they have lost a lot of cattle. The Borana communities would move with their cattle periodically in search of pastures, but because of the drought, they had to abandon this practice and move to the cities. When the rains were regular, they were rich and thriving but all that has changed now,” said Yebatse GebreMichael, coordinator at Extinction Rebellion Addis.
In the grips of a civil war, northern Ethiopia, especially Tigray, is suffering from acute food insecurity, so much so that people are begging for food or relocating altogether. The UN has largely been unable to supply food to the region since early July due to a lack of fuel.
Increasing refugeeism in Ethiopia, as a result of violence across the Horn of Africa, is creating even more competition for already scarce resources.
Sadly, the drought has not received the attention it deserves from mainstream media, where news of the ongoing violent conflict takes the spotlight.
“The drought is severely underreported. It is a ‘hidden drought’ as they say. But the impacts are very real,” said GebreMichael.
In the northern Karamoja region of Uganda, bordering Kenya, over 900 people from the Kotido, Napak, Kaabong, and Moroto districts have died of hunger, local leaders say.
According to Nyombi Morris, a youth climate activist from Uganda, and founder of Earth volunteers, this is because of poor planning on the government’s part and inadequate international humanitarian aid.
“In 2020, the locust infestation that devastated Kenya also hit northern Uganda. The region was attacked, and all their food was eaten up. This was a sign that famine was going to come. But our leaders acted carelessly,” he said.
The mineral-rich Karamoja –– with gold, copper, and iron reserves — is a hotspot for violent conflicts. Traditionally home to cattle-herders, the neglected region was thrust into industrial prominence when international mining companies arrived first in the early twenty-tens.
However, in a tale as old as time, the companies also brought with them land-grabbing, rights violations, and environmental degradation, adding another layer of vulnerability to the peoples of Karamoja, with new mining licenses recently handed out.
Morris said that for Uganda to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change, it is important to establish food reserves, but countries such as his with “weak governments” can only do so much.
Communities in the Horn of Africa are not silently taking the drought for what it is. They epitomize resilience.
Omar, founder of Spring of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SASAL), and Mohammed, co-founder of the Isiolo Conservationists Trust, in Kajiado and Isiolo, Kenya, respectively, have been working on different adaptation and resilience methods to cope with the drought– including land restoration, establishing tree nurseries with drought-resilient varieties such as the neem, and educating and activating women and children on climate action.
But their efforts can only go so far.
These countries have been historically exploited by the white Global North, and their current reality is no coincidence. After centuries of being plundered colonially, and yet again neo-colonially, these countries of the Global South form the frontlines of the climate crisis.
“The Global South needs climate justice. Communities like mine are severely affected by Global North carbon emissions, [although] we have contributed very little to this,” said Omar.
“The ongoing heatwave in the UK is much talked about, but this kind of phenomenon occurs on a daily basis in other parts of the world. We need action, we cannot do with any more false promises. We need the climate finance that has been promised. It is not being delivered.”
The “climate finance” Omar speaks of includes that which is discussed at the UNFCCC’s Conference of Parties (COP), for example. For years now, rich countries like the US and UK have pledged money towards climate adaptation for African countries at these talks, without leaving a money trail to show for it.
The COP this year will be held in Africa, and the issue of Loss and Damage finance will once again be raised. Since this fund raises the issue of reparations, rich countries have consistently shied away from making pledges. For the sake of communities suffering in the Horn of Africa, it is crucial that they finally pay up for their climate crimes.