We must find sustainable solutions for arid lands

Monday March 25 2019

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Our response to drought and famine is like an overburdened donkey. You never know whether it will move on or hit you hard with its back legs.

Once again, we’ve been hit hard this year. That is why no one is telling the truth on the ground.

Politicians say the drought has killed people. The Government denies that but no one challenges the veracity of the heart-wrenching pictures of malnourished citizens of this great country.

As usual, it is the most vulnerable (women and children) in our Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) areas that are affected the most.

I believed the Cabinet Secretary (CS) for Agriculture Eugene Wamalwa, when he said there is no water. It is also obvious from media pictures that there is also no vegetation. However, it is the response to these concerns that baffles me.

Without consideration of the famished residents’ diet, the government donated 1,000 bags of maize and 500 bags of beans.

The last time I cooked Ugali, I needed flour, water and firewood. Where did the CS think the people of Pokot would have gotten all these ingredients?

The politicians who accompanied the him and made the case for their people to be rescued carried bottled water for themselves as they addressed ''their'' thirsty people who pensively sat in the searing afternoon sun.

The Pokot, Turkana and the Samburu communities have lived in their lands and weathered droughts for centuries until greed overwhelmed us.

Forestlands were grabbed, destroying water towers and effectively disrupting the climate.


In the past, they predicted drought and planned for it using traditional technologies. They preserved meat by drying it and soaking it in honey so that it could support families through the drought periods. They can no longer do that due to the disruptions in the climatic patterns as a result of climate change.

The vegetation in most of the northern counties is gone. Desertification, which was abstract a few years ago, is spreading but we continue to live as though we were the last inhabitants on earth.

Sustainable Development Goals number 11 on sustainable cities and communities and 13 on climate action are so abstract that no one discusses them anymore.

The United Nations envisaged that there will be no country in the world that will not experience first-hand drastic effects of climate change. ''Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and are now more than 50 percent higher than their 1990 level. Further, global warming is causing long-lasting changes to our climate system, which threatens irreversible consequences if we do not take action now.''

That has come to pass. Mozambique experienced a cyclone, a strange thing in the Eastern seaboard of Africa, killing more than 1,000 people, temperatures in Nairobi cannot let you sleep under a blanket anymore and data from Institute of Economic Affairs show that 11.4 percent of the children in Kenya are severely stunted with majority coming from the ASAL areas.

It is not all doom and gloom for ASAL areas. As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. We can change fortunes.

These areas are endowed with rich resources. I don’t just mean oil. What I mean is that the severe climate is an opportunity. The region could become a major supplier of green energy from wind to solar, especially now when hydroelectric power is compromised by lack of water.


We however need immediate measures by sending fortified foods, not maize and beans.

The CS must find ways of distributing water, milk and beef jerky as an immediate substitute to their hard-to-find traditional diet.

The communities must be stabilised first before beginning to discuss medium-term and long-term opportunities that can foster sustainability.

Before the drought turns into a crisis, we need to buy and slaughter most of the livestock, supply the beef jerky making machines, food dehydrators and also encourage production of sun-dried meat for local consumption and exports as a strategy of storing value that they can use to restock their animals.

Kenya already produces one of the best sun-dried Aliya beef jerky that effectively competes with Biltong, cured meat that originated in South Africa.

The leaders from the area must stop making pessimistic speeches that never contribute to sustainably helping their people come out of poverty.

They need to travel to Israel and learn what Kibbutz (A collective community, traditionally based on agriculture) are so as to persuade pastoralists to begin concentrating their resources in one area where all services (Water, energy, telecommunications and roads) can be provided and begin to develop sustainable communities.

Through communal living, they can be supported to build solar and wind farms and since they have one of the best astronomical sites, they can partner with investors to build an optical astronomy observatory that will attract tourism to the ASAL areas.

Income from these investments would go to dispensing capital expenditure as well as for building community resilience.

I hope we never get to see another year of blame game. We can build sustainable communities if we abandon our selfishness and start exploiting the glaring God-given opportunities.

We need to realize that we are all the same people. When we neglect our people so much that their pictures become part of the so-called poverty pornography, we should all be very ashamed.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.@bantigito