Climate Change and Conflict in Eastern Africa

Report from Kenya #360 – November 6, 2015

African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams



Note: Tomorrow I will be giving a talk at the Green Planet Festival 2015 in Phoenix, AZ, on Climate Change and Conflict in Eastern Africa. Here is what I plan on saying.


I am certain that you have followed the saga of the Syrians fleeing the war in Syria and emigrating to Europe. While the common assumption is that this is caused by the war in Syria, the actual root cause was a four year drought from 2006 to 2011 which drove millions of farmers from the lands their ancestors had cultivated for centuries into the teaming cities.


Dark red indicates area of drought in the Middle East between 2006 and 2011.


This, I submit, is just the beginning of what will be happening more broadly in east and central Africa as the area becomes drier with more frequent and severe droughts, often followed by major flooding. Let me note that “drought” in Africa can mean that the farmer loses his complete crop and has even wasted the seeds used for planting. If he has cattle, sheep, goats, or camels, these can starve to death.


Mt. Kilimanjaro as it used to look.


From 1968 to 1970, I lived in the Mua Hills, about 40 miles southeast of Nairobi, Kenya. This was the highest point in Machakos District and a few times per year I could see Mt. Kilimanjaro about 115 miles away. The white snow cap would gleam from the morning or afternoon sun – the times of the day when it was clear enough to see more than a hundred miles. Forty-five years later it looks like this



Mt. Kilimanjaro as it looks now.


As you can see, the snow has mostly melted. There are predictions that the glaciers on the mountain will be completely gone in a decade or two. Among East Africans there are no climate deniers as they can see climate change happening before their eyes. In addition, the climate change to date has already upset the normal seasons for planting and harvesting, making it much more difficult for these countries to feed themselves. For example, in 2014, where I live in western Kenya, the long rainy season began in the middle of February. This year the rains did not begin until after the first of April.


In the late 1960’s, when I lived in the Mua Hills about 6,000 feet above sea level, at night it was so cold that I had to wear a sweater or jacket to keep warm. Now the nights are so warm that people don’t need sweaters. More importantly, in the ‘60’s, because of the cold, there were no mosquitoes. This meant that there also was no malaria. Today there are mosquitoes and malaria. This is indicative of the consequences of climate change for people as the region warms up.


For the last eight years I have lived in Lumakanda in western Kenya. From my kitchen door I can see Mt Elgon which is not nearly as high as Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is about 50 miles away. People my age (72 years old) say that when they were young and going to school, they could sometimes see snow on the top of the mountain. Of course, it would have melted by the time they went home from school. In the eight years I have lived here I have never seen snow on Mt. Elgon.


Here are the lyrics from the song, Farmer and Cowman, from the light opera, Oklahoma.


Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough,
The other likes to chase a cow,
But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends
In eastern and central Africa, the “cowman” and “farmer” are not friends as they compete for grass, land, and water. There are continuous conflicts between them. Whenever there is a drought, the pastoralists bring their cows, camels, goats, and/or sheep onto the farms of the agriculturalists; the desperate way pastoralists can keep their animals from starving to death. In some cases these pastoralists have hundreds or even thousands of animals that need to graze. Clearly they can quickly destroy the farms. Moreover the pastoralists tend to have warrior traditions and carry weapons, frequently automatic rifles which can be purchased for the cost of about one local cow. This, for example, is the root cause of the conflicts in Darfur in western Sudan and in the Central African Republic.


When people are desperate, they will do whatever is necessary to survive. Remember that in the Irish potato famine in 1845 to 1852, a million people died while another million fled – mostly to the United States – so that the population of Ireland decreased about 25%.


Map of vegetation in eastern and central Africa.


In the map above, the top color is the Sahara Desert; the next, semi-desert; and so on until the dark green is the dense equatorial forest. Note how narrow the bands of vegetation are. Therefore any climate change induced drought quickly pushes people to the wetter areas. This leads to violent conflict as, like the Syrians fleeing Syria, people will do whatever it takes to survive.


The African Great Lakes Initiative works in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northeast Kenya, an area of semi-desert. There are now 180,000 people in this camp. Between 2011 and 2013 it did not rain there for twenty months. Then it poured. People were killed in the floods. As one man commented, From what I witnessed more than seven refugees have so far died in floods in Kakuma. We don’t keep data of natural calamities. Ten people may get drowned but we might only receive three bodies. The flooding was so bad that people couldn’t wear shoes because the shoes would get stuck in the muck and come off the feet. The refugees said that they preferred the drought because the rains increased the amount of disease from malaria, typhoid, and dysentery.


Dead cattle from the current drought in Ethiopia.


Perhaps you remember the 1983 to 1985 drought in Ethiopia which led to the deaths of 400,000 people. There is another drought in Ethiopia this year. The UN is estimating that by early next year 15 million Ethiopians will need food assistance in order to survive. Farmers lose their animals as shown in the picture above. Notice that there is no grass in the picture. Ethiopia is already one of the major countries of origin for people fleeing to Europe. Their journey is treacherous as they have to cross the Sahara Desert to Libya and then cross the Mediterranean Sea in a rickety boats to reach Italy or Greece. Many perish on the way.



Kibera Slum in Nairobi


Syria, though, had about 23 million people while Ethiopia has almost 100 million people. In addition, Ethiopia is only one of many countries in eastern and central Africa with a total population of more than 300 million people, equal to the population of the United States. These people are all prone to drought followed by flooding. In the 1997/1998 El Nino floods in Kenya destroyed ten percent of the country’s infrastructure. Continued climate change induced droughts and floods are going to increase the destruction of the environment with people either dying or fleeing, first to the overcrowded cities that can’t handle the influx (see picture above of the largest slum, Kibera, in Kenya) and then to other countries that are faring better. Children, of course, are often the ones who suffer most and who die disproportionally.


This, as I see it, is the result of drought and flooding from climate change. Is the world prepared to deal with the consequences of this climate change and the conflicts, destruction, and deaths that it will generate?




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Since 1998, David Zarembka has been the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region (available at www.davidzarembka.com).


David Zarembka, Coordinator

African Great Lakes Initiative of Friends Peace Teams
P. O. Box 189, Kipkarren River 50241 Kenya
Phone in Kenya: 254 (0)726 590 783 in US: 301/765-4098
Office in US: 1001 Park Avenue, St Louis, MO 63104 USA 314/647-1287
Webpage: www.aglifpt.org   Reports from Kenya: www.aglifpt.org/rfk/

Email: dave@aglifpt.org



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