Words from Kenya

One rainstorm doesn’t break a drought (but two or three could cause trouble).

Rain on the road to Leparua

Several parts of northern Kenya have experienced rain in the last week. This comes as a huge relief to many. The last rains either failed or were very poor across northern and eastern parts of the country. Everybody is desperate for the rains to come so that there will be enough water and pasture to see them through the next dry season.

However, according to the Kenya Meteorological Department, we shouldn’t get too excited. They have forecasted that these coming rains will also be below average for most of the north and east of Kenya. Even in Turkana, where more normal amounts of rainfall are expected, they have warned it will not be sufficient to fully recharge underground water sources and the water table is still likely to be low.

Ahead of us lies the long dry season, six months without rain. Unless there is significant improvement in water and pasture reserves these rains will do little more than delay the inevitable slide into severe drought conditions. There is another problem however, and this one arises from some places receiving better than expected rains.

During times of drought the number of violent conflicts generally reduces. Though it is true that many conflicts are resource related, a severe lack of resources usually sees a decrease in conflict. Jordan Street, in his article discussing the circumstances surrounding the 2012 Baragoi massacre of 42 policemen, suggests that this is because in times of drought people see the benefit of collaboration and mutual support. Certainly it seems that in general, providing politics are not involved, you will hear less gunfire across northern Kenya in the last months of the long dry season (the harshest and most difficult time even when there isn’t a drought) than at other times of the year.

Unfortunately this is not the case when northern Kenya sees patchy and uneven rainfall; when there are some areas that have received rain surrounded by much larger areas that haven’t. When this happens those living in the few areas of enhanced rainfall can find that the rain is not so much a blessing as a curse.

Livestock herders will travel huge distances to graze their animals in such areas, leading to sudden population explosions of both livestock and people. Communities that normally neighbour each other may often compete but they will also have a history of compromise and sharing. When strangers, people from far distant places, come to share the resources there is no past history of compromise to fall back on; and with too many people and animals these relatively small areas of good pasture and water can get depleted very quickly.

During the last drought in northern Kenya, three years ago, there were a few places that had better pasture and more water than the rest of the north. Some of the places were in western Isiolo, Samburu and Laikipia Districts. These areas were inundated with herders, and their livestock, from all over the north. With the exception of the Rendille herders that moved into Samburu areas there was a great deal of tension between the incoming herders and the locals in all areas affected. The tension degenerated into open conflict in several locations.

So, as we watch the pattern of rainfall over northern Kenya during the next few weeks we will not only be watching to see how much rainfall there is but whether some areas do significantly better than others. If some areas do, then they could easily be the location of conflict in the coming months.

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