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Drought drives Kenyan pastoralists into Uganda

Mark Caldwell AFP, AP
April 18, 2017

Tens of thousands of pastoralists fled from Turkana in Kenya to Uganda last week to escape the drought. It is the latest blow for the parched region for which politicians once made rash promises of rapid modernization.

A Turkana pastoralist next to one of her goats that failed to suvrive the drought
Image: DW/S. Petersmann

As many as 10,000 Kenyan pastoralists have crossed the border from Turkana in Kenya to Uganda in search of pasture and water for their cattle.

Josephat Nanok, governor of Kenya's Turkana County, confirmed their departure and urged Uganda to accommodate them, The Monitor in Kampala reported.

This latest exodus means that a total of 60,000 Turkana pastoralists and 127,000 livestock have moved to Uganda's Karamjoa sub-region over the last seven days.  

One Turkana pastoralist said they had fled to Karamoja because, unlike Turkana, it still had some shrubs and bushes which could serve as food for the cattle.

Hunger and no rain

The end of March was supposed to bring rains to Turkana, transforming barren plains into pasture. It still hasn't happened.  The dry spell is worse than in previous years, another Turkana pastoralist said.

Far from Kenya's agricultural south,  Turkana is a vast, poor northern region regularly ravaged by drought. "The image of Kenya as a middle income country doesn't do justice to the reality on the ground," Werner Schultink, country head for the UN children's agency UNICEF, told AFP.        

He was referring to the hunger which is plaguing the north of Turkana. In the Kibish region, squeezed between Ethiopia and South Sudan, more than half of children aged six months to five years are suffering from acute malnutrition.

Map of Kenya showing Turkana
Turkana is Kenya's largest but pooorest region

In the early part of this decade, politicians made rash promises of rapid modernization that would consign to history decades of deliberate marginalization, first by British colonialists and then by Kenya's governing elite in Nairobi, who shared a disdain for the pastoralists and their way of life.

"Expectations were disproportionate," said John Nakara, a Turkana parliamentarian. "Those changes don't happen in five years, but in 20, at least."

Oil and water

That didn't stop the promises. An ambitious plan for roads, railways and oil pipelines crossing northern Kenya was launched with great fanfare in 2012, but it has been slow in coming.

Instead Turkana remains crisscrossed with dirt tracks that become impassable when it rains, and where the few sealed sections are so badly potholed that drivers prefer the dirt shoulders.

That same year, British company Tullow Oil announced the discovery of large crude reserves in Turkana.

 Production is expected to begin in June, but local and national officials are still arguing over distribution of revenues and no pipeline has yet been built, meaning the oil will have to be trucked to the port of Mombasa, more than 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) away.

Preparing flowers for export in Kenya
Kenya's flower exports from more fertile southern parts of the country stand in marked contrast to the arid landscapes of Turkana Image: Kenya Flower Council

In 2013, Kenya and the UN cultural body UNESCO announced the discovery of large reserves of groundwater beneath Turkana that promised irrigation and enough water for all.

But the reality has proved rather different. The aquifer holding the groundwater is hard to exploit, the water is deeper underground and less pure than predicted.

"The announcement was very optimistic and based on very limited information," said Sean Avery, a Kenya-based consultant on water issues.

Devolution and drought

The situation is not uniformly bleak in this arid region. Political devolution has handed more power, including the power to disburse funds, to local authorities since 2013. This is facilitating the opening of new health clinics in Turkana which halve the distance people have to walk to seek diagnosis or treatment.

But the drought remains a country-wide problem. Kenya has declared it a "national disaster" and appealed for international aid.

Three million people are in need of emergency humanitarian assistance, and, while the response has been more effective than the last time, in 2011, still more needs to be done, aid workers say.

"In the current situation, this is clearly not enough," said Schultink.

 As the drought bites, the road ahead looks longer than ever for Turkana where some 92 percent of its 1.4 million people live below the poverty line and only a fifth know how to read and write.

Kenyans suffer from drought and famine