Were it not for the massive deforestation for wood fuel, charcoal and building materials, Garissa would be far from becoming a desert.
Not that Garissa was once a dense forest like the Mau Complex, or a verdant region like Kisii. But with its scattered shrubs, woody trees and patchy grasslands, this semi-arid lowland had a befitting ecology for browsers such as goats, camels and grazers like sheep.
But now, even the few shrubs and acacia trees have disappeared, exposing the north-eastern county to undulating sand storm, and blistering heat.
Locals who could easily access water by merely drilling a 60-metre deep borehole now have to go beyond 200 metres for the commodity, as the changing climate shrinks the area’s water table towards the earth’s mantle.
Most of the green parts of the county is covered by the invasive Mathenge tree (Prosopis juliflora), a dense shrub the locals have criticised for further lowering the water table, while at the same time poisoning their livestock.
Garissa County Governor Ali Korane notes that the pastoralist communities have lost more than 80 per cent of their livestock to recurrent droughts, which are becoming severe by the day.
"We have had serious impacts which have severely affected our rainfall patterns.
“In the past we used to experience drought after one or five years, but now it has become an annual occurrence," the governor noted.
While pastoral communities are accustomed to dealing with drought and erratic rainfall, and have traditionally utilised systems and practices that minimise the impact of climate-related shocks, the impacts of climate change have combined with other environmental, economic and political factors to create a situation of increasing vulnerability for poor and marginalised households. The situation is particularly serious for women and the youth.
Having lost pasture and their livestock, the distressed nomads are forced to relocate to urban areas for alternative livelihoods, further leading to chaotic urbanisation.
Since development in many towns across the country is unplanned, rising population across this town overstretches the scarcely available resources such as housing, food, water and sanitation, transport, and healthcare, leading to high insecurity and widespread disease infections.
And as various parts of the country are struggling to come to terms with the heavy impact of climate change, Garissa County is already hosting two different categories of refugees; the internally displaced climate change refugees and the Dadaab-based war refugees from the neighbouring Somalia.
In other words, Dadaab is a refugee camp within a refugee county.
The scary nightmare about this phenomenon is that conflicts over natural resources such as wood and water are bound to arise; pitting the two needy camps against each other.
Last year, the host community staged a huge protest in Garissa Town, claiming the Dadaab refugees have depleted environment as a result of charcoal burning, poaching and cutting down trees.
The Garissa governor still maintains the host community’s position, attributing massive environmental degradation in the county to the high influx of refugees at the Dadaab refugee complex, who are accused of cutting trees for firewood and house constructing materials.
An energy situation survey conducted at the Dadaab refugee camp by Chatham House in 2016 reported that 98 per cent of the residents use wood as their main cooking fuel, and the authorities have been unable to regulate firewood market, or to provide sufficient support to the most vulnerable.
Refugees are rarely provided with energy resources by the UNHCR, the report added.
The Dadaab camp, which currently hosts 235,269 people, was established in 1991 to accommodate Somali refugees fleeing violence, environmental and social problems caused by civil war, famine, and drought.
"Since the refugees at Dadaab are not provided with alternative energy solution, they rely on firewood, forcing them to go out into the villages, sometimes as far as 200km away from the camp, to cut trees for wood fuel, charcoal, and housing materials," remarked Mr Korane, adding that massive degradation coupled with climate change is quickly turning the county into a desert.
The governor now wants the national government and the UN refugee agency to provide briquettes and solar technology solutions in the refugee camp to save the county from desertification.
While acknowledging that over reliance on firewood has stirred a huge resource problem in Dadaab, Maimuna Kabatesi, a climate and energy expert at Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos) notes that women who trek long distances, over 50km to fetch the firewood, are exposed to gender-based violence in the process. Purchasing firewood within the camps is often too expensive for the refugees.
Ms Kabatesi says that there is great potential for producing briquettes using the invasive 'mathenge' tree, besides investing in solar technology for lighting and water pumping.
"Dadaab and Garissa County is traditionally very dry and use of solar for water pumping will enable the locals and the refugees to access clean water for both domestic and agricultural use," Ms Kabatesi noted.
On July 31, the County government launched the Garissa County Climate Change Fund (GCCCF) Act, 2018 setting aside two per cent (translating to Sh60 million in the 2018/2019 financial year) of its annual development budget to climate change adaptation and resilience building.
The Climate Change Act, which should be adopted by all the 47 counties, provides a mechanism through which counties and vulnerable groups can access and use climate finance to build their resilience to a changing climate in a more coordinated way.
Once adopted at the county level, communities are organised through elected Ward County Climate Change Planning Committees (WCCPCs) to identify and prioritise public good investments opportunities.
By committing two per cent of its annual budget to climate change mitigation, Garissa becomes the fifth county to pass and adopt the Climate Change Act, also making it eligible to access the Sh500 million climate change fund set aside by the national government to tackle climate change impacts.
"We are ready to support the initiative and offer our best to ensure funds are used for the right purpose for the benefit of the vulnerable communities," said Habon Maalim Aden, the Garissa county executive for Environment for Natural Resources.