Drought threatens future of Kenya's Maasai people

Posted: 5 August 2009

In the midst of one of Africa's most ravaging droughts, a clear connection between environmental policy, public health, and human conflict has been identified by students conducting fieldwork with The School for Field Studies (SFS) in southern Kenya.

For the last four years, Kenya has seen far less rain than the long-term average, and today there is total failure. It is a drought that has left the Maasai people with no traditional grassland left to graze their herds. farmersMaasai farmers© Betty Press/Panos PicturesSome of the only remaining alternatives for these pastoralists have been to travel to the far reaches of Kenya in search of proper grassland, or to move illegally into protected areas. While these options may temporarily provide grazing for livestock, the people have experienced starvation and conflict.

The Maasai and other settlers use the diverse habitat at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro in southern Kenya as a communal grazing zone for livestock as well as for growing food. During the dry season, it customarily takes five to six months to exhaust the pasturelands in these areas. This year, grazing areas were completely overstretched in less than two months as pastoralists stayed longer, waiting for the rains to come.

Severe malnutrition

Some Maasai were forced to travel with their herds five to ten times the distance they usually traverse from their permanent bomas (dry season pasture). They have radiated in all compass directions to as far north as central Kenya, south to northern and central Tanzania, west to the Maasai Mara region, and all the way to the Kenyan coast in search of the elusive grass. Others were forced to move their herds into the protected national parks of Tsavo, Chyulu Hills, and Amboseli, important migration corridors for endangered wildlife. The consequences have been grave and its effects will be felt by Kenyans for a long time to come.

Masai lion guardian
Masai lion guardian
Masai lion guardian finds wildebeest killed by a lion. Photo credit: Wildlife Direct
In the short-term, there have already been widespread reports in Kenya of severe malnutrition and anecdotal evidence of people starving to death. During a field visit to the Mbirikani AIDS Clinic, SFS students bore witness to those hit the worst - women, children, and the elderly who have had to stay home, unable to follow the migrating herds.

The relationships between local community members and the agencies responsible for managing protected areas in Kenya are rapidly deteriorating. As Maasai attempt to access pasture in these areas, they are being arrested, leaving their livestock to be stampeded away and left without herders. Counter-retaliation has been reportedly vowed as angry agency members attempt to remove all traces of livestock in Maasai group ranches.

Vanishing glaciers

In the long-term, the viability of pastoralism as a competitive and sustainable livelihood strategy has been severely compromised. Many pastoralists have resigned themselves to losing their entire herds and many may never accumulate enough stock to re-enter pastoralism, forcing them into overcrowded urban areas. As a result, managing both the nutritional needs of the Maasai people and critical wildlife conservation will be extremely difficult. The entire balance of this African land and the important food chain that its valuable and vulnerable resources support are at risk, potentially creating catastrophic barriers to survival and peace.

Future rainfall patterns across the region due to global warming are largely uncertain to climate scientists. While future drought may exacerbate the current crisis, an increase in rainfall may extend the prevalence of water-borne diseases. Either scenario will require sound natural resource management and public health policies.

It is clear, however, that climate warming and changing weather patterns are impacting on the Amboseli Ecosystem, heavily dependent as it is on springs and rivers nourished by Mt. Kilimanjaro. The icecaps atop the mountain have reduced drastically and are expected to vanish completely by the year 2020. This is one of the main causes of serious environmental degradation and loss of livelihood for the local population.

SFS has been working closely with the local communities in identifying ways to manage these changes and its public health and environment researchers will continue to observe and report on the ravages of the drought.

The School's international study programme 'combines hands-on environmental studies with scientific research to develop sustainable solutions to critical environmental problems'.

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