Words from Kenya

Cyclone Idai, climate change and famine in Turkana

Turkana House

The effects of Cyclone Idai have reached beyond the devastation of parts of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. According to the latest Kenya Meteorological Department report it sucked so much moisture out of the atmosphere that the southeast winds, those that normally bring Kenya rains at this time of the year, are pushing only dry air in our direction.

The rainy season, originally forecast to be on the wetter side of normal, has been delayed by Cyclone Idai. It may be that we get very little rain at all because conditions in the southern Indian Ocean are currently ripe for more cyclones. Another, Cyclone Joaninha, has been sitting just to the east of Madagascar for the last few days and is also using up moisture that winds would otherwise have push onto Kenya.

Recent deaths in parts of Turkana and Baringo counties have been linked to hunger driven by drought. If climate change is responsible for the increase in strength and number of Indian Ocean cyclones this year then it will also be responsible for making the dry conditions across the north of Kenya much worse.

I hesitate to call the current situation in northern Kenya a drought. We have been through a normal dry season which followed on from slightly less rains than normal in the previous Oct-Nov rainy season. Conditions are dry but not dramatically more than normal. What is different these days, as opposed to 20 years ago, is the number of people trying to live in a marginal environment.

Population increase has been most dramatic in the very areas where there is the least development and the most hostile environment. Fewer people would make the current conditions look a lot less like drought and a lot more like a dry season. Famine, though, has hardly ever been recorded as a solely environmental issue. It is always at least partly social and for social, read political. Too many people for the carrying capacity of the land, and little or no social support is the main driver behind hunger in Turkana, Baringo and other parts of northern Kenya.

Climate change, and an increase in the number and severity of Indian Ocean cyclones, draining the moisture out of the atmosphere through which our rainy season winds are blowing, will make matters a whole lot worse. It is quite possible that this year we will now see very little rain across most of Kenya, during what is normally regarded as the most important rainy season of the year. This will impact not just those already suffering in the northern half of the country but also many others who rely on these rains for crop production to sustain themselves and fellow Kenyans.

Of course climate change, like famine, is a man-made problem. Just this time it’s not one that many Kenyans can be blamed for. Like those that have suffered so badly from Cyclone Idai, climate change is something people in Africa struggle to deal with but have had very little to do with causing.

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