Drought Conditions and Cultural Change

Drought and Recovery in Eastern Africa

Constant drought is not the status quo in Northern Kenya and the horn of Africa. The region often receives an increased measure of attention during occasional periods of drought that kill livestock and decimate families and communities, but typically (or at least for the last 2,000 years which can be measured and assessed by climate scientists), these droughts eventually pass. The rains return, weather patterns stabilize and livestock populations rebound. The region is arid, and eking out a living here requires a measure of hardship and uncertainty, but it’s certainly possible—at least it has been for countless generations.

But now, a global increase in climate temperature is steadily pushing the region into a state of aridity that does not allow for extended recovery periods. Droughts have become more frequent and more harsh than they have been in any recorded period in the past, and these changes are having an impact on the decreasing number of people who can survive here.

Families and individuals who are likely to remain in the region are being urged by the scientific community to radically adapt their lifestyles by making changes that include building and maintaining reservoirs, shifting crops to those which can survive at an elevated level of soil dryness, and storing animal fodder for the long term, rather than living season to season. These changes are put in place more readily by some communities than others, and fundamental changes like these will have a long term and as-yet-unknown impact on the culture and economy of the area.

In the meantime, short term adaptations are taking place which may accelerate the difficulties of local populations and possibly hasten a state of instability and exodus. For example, those who can no longer make a living selling livestock often turn to making and selling charcoal, a process which strips trees from an area and exposes the soil to even higher degrees of runoff. Occasional violent conflicts arise over diminishing pastureland and over attempts to raid and steal livestock to replace those lost to starvation and dehydration. Violence further reduces elements of stability and recovery.

The toll of climate change on the most fragile and precarious landscapes that sustain human communities can be seen as a critical indicator of what happens to these communities under the resulting stress, how they respond and adapt, where they go when they are forced to leave, and how these patterns may reappear in other communities that are likely to experience similar irreversible ecological changes in the future.

In the horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Eretria, and parts of Northern Kenya, cultures and societies have adapted to dry climates and have survived many of the hardships linked to the landscape that sustains them, including conflict over limited resources, long walks to sources of water (an issue with implications for gender relations and equality for girls and women), and dependence on hardy crops like maize and hardy livestock like goats. But what will happen as droughts become longer, recovery periods become more sporadic and conflicts become more dangerous? The scientific community, the World Food Program and the United Nations are watching carefully, and so are we.

What we learn from current conditions in this region will have an impact on future decisions made by economists, sociologists, and democratic governments around the world. The outcome will affect our ability to keep industry in check and develop solutions that can prevent rising temperatures from reaching an all-important two-degree increase.