Scratching the bare earth for food

Posted: 13 November 2006

Author: Ochieng' Ogodo

Africa faces the greatest immediate dangers of climate change, according to a recent UN report, timed to coincide with the world climate change conference in Nairobi. The report warns that Africa could face a large loss of wildlife habitat and falling crop yields in less than a generation. But tens of millions of poor rural Africans are already experiencing the grim realities of global warming says Kenyan journalist, Ochieng' Ogodo, in this first hand report.

With equal measures of hope and despair, 70-year-old Syombua Munyao stoops wearily to sprinkle a handful of seeds into the dry, hardened earth, almost certain they will never grow into food.

"We are only trying. It is not like the old days when you would be sure of a harvest after the rains," she sighs, shuffling back to one of a clutch of rounded huts of mud and thatched leaves where she lives in the poor Kiongwe region of eastern Kenya.

For decades, life has been a struggle in this harsh environment, but Munyao says things were never as bad as they are now.

"There are no good rains anymore," she complains. "The sun was always hot, but these days it feels like it's moved closer. We are being baked," she exclaims, wiping sweat from her brow under a sun still uncomfortably hot in October.

Although Munyao lives in Kenya, hers is a familiar story throughout Africa, which experts around the world agree is hardest hit by climate change.

Ominous perils

The continent faces ominous environmental perils if current global warming trends continue, says a report released at the UN Climate Change Conference, now underway in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi.

In less than a generation, 40 per cent of Africa's wildlife habitat could be lost, and cereal crops in the hungry continent of 900 million people could decline by five per cent, the authoritative UN report said.

It warned that a third of Africa's coastal settlements could be wiped out this century by rising sea levels, and floods threaten as many as 70 million people, together with major cities such as Lagos in Nigeria and Cape Town in South Africa.

Munyao, who lives only about 200 kilometres from Nairobi, knows nothing about the report or its dire predictions. But tens of millions of poor rural Africans like her are already suffering under the grim impact of climate change on their lives.

Decade of drought

Ten years ago, dry spells and drought forced Munyao to move from the nearby lowlands to the higher grounds of Kiongwe, where there was more water. They had more to eat for a while, but without rainfall the earth dried up again.

She and many of the 3,000 people living in Kiongwe and around began cutting down trees on the higher ranges, clearing forested land to cultivate food and burning the wood for fuel.

Thick forests where elders once retreated for worship, or to gather vital medicinal plants to heal wounds and cure typhoid, diarrhoea, coughs and other ailments, have now become dry rocky ranges.

"When this place was forested it was an oasis, with water for our cattle, goats and sheep; there were wild animals like leopards and antelope," Munyao recalls. "Now all we see are a few monkeys now and then," she says.

The rainy seasons, once predictable, have become erratic and scarce. The Kiongwe River, which would flow strongly after rains in May and retain water for much of the year, is now nearly dry year round, people living there say.

"There are no rains anymore," Munyao complains. "We no longer cultivate anything but maize and beans, because these ripen more quickly," she says. Sometimes, the people of Kiongwe say, they manage to stay alive only because of meagre food supplies from the UN's World Food Programme.

Foods like cowpea, millet, sorghum and yam have become only memories from her younger days, Munyao says.

Long dry speels

Deforestation, drought, loss of wildlife habitat and declining or disappearing crops are not future threats in the lives of most rural Africans. They are scourges of their daily lives.

Climate change, of the kind occurring in the Kitui district where Kiongwe is located, is associated with global warming, says Dr Buruhani Nyenzi, head of the UN's World Climate Programme.

He says that the impact of climate change in Kitui was seen in long dry spells without rainfall, a rise in child mortality, and more cases of diseases like malaria.

The new UN climate change report noted that Africa had warmed 0.7 degrees centigrade in the previous century, and that 1995 and 1998 were the warmest years.

Changing landscape

In the Endau Hills area, about 300 kilometres east of Nairobi, Godfrey Wambua remembers the hot years of about a decade ago, noting that was when the weather became unpredictable and began to grow warmer.

"We had two seasons, the long rains from March to May and short ones running from October to November, but that is not the case anymore," says Wambua, who is in his late 30s and is a council leader for his community of 30,000 people.

Only two decades ago a thick forest, home to birds, monkeys, gazelle and buffalo, covered the entire hilly area of Endau Hills, which spans 6,700 hectares. But the foothills have turned bare, with only the hilly peaks still green with trees. Most of the animals, the residents say, have disappeared.

Like in Kiongwe to the west, people in Endau have gradually moved up the highlands, cutting down trees to expand land for cultivation and grazing. But without trees to slow them down, winds sometimes blow so hard that they rip the thatched-leaf roofs from the huts.

Desertification is another scourge. Water, which was once plentiful from shallow springs, has become so scarce that women and girls sometimes walk more than 15 kilometres a day to fetch it, people in Endau say.

Scarcity throughout the region has led to tensions with herders in the next district, who have begun to bring their cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys in the hundreds of thousands to Endau for grazing and water.

Hunger all year

Sometimes fights erupt over water, and animals are killed in revenge, says Wambua, who owns cattle and sheep, and grows maize when seasons are good. "Over the years the situation has gone from bad to worse," Wambua says, squatting under a thin leafless tree with his chin rested in his palm.

Musyoka Kaleli, who has lived in Endau Hills and makes a living from cattle and subsistence farming, remembers a time when there was more than enough food and milk to go around.

"Thirty-six years ago there was rich grazing land, fertile soil and good harvests," he recalls wistfully. "We had plenty of milk, and those who did not have could get generous rations from neighbours at no cost."

"But life has changed; there is hunger all year long," says Kaleli, 68. His greatest worry is for the future. "When you look at us today you see poverty. This is sad, because it is getting worse, and those who come after us will have the bare earth to scratch for food."

Ochieng' Ogodo is a Nairobi-based journalist whose articles have been published in various countries in Africa, the US and the UK.

Source: Panos Features. (Panos Features are published by Panos London, an independent foundation which is part of a network of Panos institutes dedicated to reporting on environment and development issues from a human perspective. See: www.panos.org.uk/

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