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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 November 2006, 17:28 GMT
Warning signs on Kenya's drought road
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Lodwar, Kenya

Man wearing ceremonial robes (Image: BBC)
A long-running drought threatens the way of life for many Kenyans

Shaded under towering trees near the town of Lodwar in north-western Kenya, a group of pastoralists had come to meet UK Environment Secretary David Miliband as he made a whistle-stop tour of communities affected by the region's two and half year drought.

He is on a brief trip to rural Kenya before he and other ministers meet for the final segment of the United Nations climate talks taking place in Nairobi.

"I thought it was very important before the negotiations started that I got out to see the real Kenya, and to see real climate change and how it's affecting real people," he told me.

"We've come up to Turkana, the northernmost province of Kenya, close to the Sudanese and Ugandan borders, where a very rural population is having to deal with the consequences of climate change."

By my estimation, 1,000 or so pastoralists had turned out in their finery, they made a fantastic welcome party, and they were not going to leave him on the sidelines.

Dancers (Image: BBC)
About 1,000 people greeted the UK's environment secretary

Smiling, he danced happily with his voluble hosts - without, mercifully, trying to mouth along to the Turkana-language words.

This impromptu dance floor could have been intimidating but you have to give him his due; he is not the worst dancer ever to hold a post in the British cabinet.

The pastoralists though, also wanted to talk; about climate change, the drought, dwindling water supplies, and the effect on their livestock.

"The last rain came in March, and then three weeks ago a lot of rain came - for two days only," said one of the men clustering around the environment secretary.

"I think it's because of the change of the climate," said another.

Bleak outlook

No crops grow in this arid land. Some fruit trees are cultivated here and there, but it is on sheep, goats and cattle that these communities depend.

The drought has been intense; many animals died, and the lives of people were threatened
Eris Lothike,
Oxfam programme officer

"They used to have more animals than they do now - the ground is becoming more and more bare," explained George Ayonga, the District Commissioner for Lodwar.

As the rains disappeared, so did the staple food.

"The drought has been intense; many animals died, and the lives of people were threatened," said Eris Lothike, a programme officer with the aid agency Oxfam.

Pressure on the pasture that remains has brought conflicts between pastoralist communities. Raiding livestock belonging to others is something of a tradition in the region; but these days it is carried out lethally with rifles and machine guns, easily obtained in the region due to conflicts further north, in Sudan and Somalia.

Saplings (Image: BBC)
Planting trees could help mitigate the impacts of climate change

Oxfam is one of the agencies involved in distributing the food aid which three million Kenyans still need as a result of the drought.

"The outlook is bleak, because unless something is done on climate change, the situation will be worse," said Mr Lothike.

Some pastoralists have traded in the traditional way of life and moved to villages. There, one of the few ways they can make money is by charcoal-burning, chopping down the few trees which remain.

And with the trees goes shade for people and livestock, and some of the security for the rivers when the rain comes and they flow again.

Last dance?

Kenya is not short of aid agencies; and there are many working in Turkana, distributing food, providing health services, helping to safeguard tree cover, and improving water supplies.

Water pump (Image: BBC)
Villagers used to go down near the river, and scoop the sand and get water from the sand
Joseph Wahome,
International Rescue Committee

A rather less colourful segment of Mr Miliband's trip involved visiting a new borehole in Nadapal, a small village several kilometres from Lodwar.

The funds in this case have come from Britain's Department for International Development (DfID) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Mr Miliband tasted the water and found it good; a sentiment shared by engineers on the project.

"[The villagers] used to go down near the river, and scoop the sand and get water from the sand," said Joseph Wahome of IRC.

A new borehole might be a boon to villagers even in the best of times; but he believes a warming climate makes such developments even more necessary.

"We are finding a lot of changes; the water table has gone down due to the drought within the area. So the amount available in our aquifers is less."

Research by Christian Aid in north-eastern Kenya, drawing on personal testimonies and other sources, found that droughts there have become four times more frequent in the last 25 years, with a third of pastoralists - half a million people - abandoning their ancestral way of life.

David Miliband (left) talking to villagers (Image: BBC)
Locals were keen to tell Mr Miliband about their experiences

Some computer models of climate change forecast that extreme droughts will become five times more common in Africa as greenhouse gas levels rise.

All of which means, says David Miliband, that the UN negotiations have to get serious on helping communities like the pastoralists adapt to climatic change, and in developing a new global deal to bring greenhouse gas emissions down.

"Climate change isn't just an environmental issue; it's an economic and social issue," he said, "because the truth is that unless we combat climate change, unless we curb our predilection for putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the economic and social costs in my own lifetime, let alone my children's' lifetimes, will be enormous."

Right now the local way of life hangs in the balance. If the scenario of increasing drought plays out, Mr Miliband may have danced the last tango with the pastoralists of Lodwar.

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