“How Global Warming Punishes the World’s Poorest” is the title of an article published on March 12 by The New York Times. In his report, the author launches a strong warning about Kenya and the Horn of Africa. “Northern Kenya – like its arid neighbors in the Horn of Africa – has become measurably drier and hotter, and scientists are finding the fingerprints of global warming. According to recent research, the region dried faster in the 20th century than any time over the last 2,000 years. Four severe droughts have walloped the area in the last two decades; a rapid succession that has pushed millions of the world’s poorest to the edge of survival”. Climatologists have linked recent droughts to higher land temperatures in East Africa, a product of human-induced climate change. As a direct consequence of this situation, in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia more than 650,000 children under age 5 are severely malnourished and at least 12 million people depend on food aid. Moreover, most of the nearly 27 million people globally displaced by climate- and weather-related disasters each year are in Africa, a continent which experienced 254 droughts in 30 years. In protracted crisis situations, migration is rarely an informed choice but rather a necessity to escape conflict, extreme poverty, and livelihood deterioration caused by environmental factors, poor governance and natural resources constraints. Kenya and many countries of the Horn of Africa are trapped in this dramatic vicious circle of climate change, conflicts and migrations. This situation poses a long-term threat to peace and socio-political stability.
According to a recent report on climate change-induced conflicts and migrations, in Kenya only 20% of the land is arable whilst the country’s northern, north-eastern and much of its southern areas are arid or semi-arid lands characterized by unpredictable weather conditions. As a result, in these regions violent inter-community conflicts over pasture and water resources are very frequent. Migration often ends up being a mechanism for adapting to and coping with such conflicts. Among the numerous causes behind conflicts, climate change has had a multiplier effect. In the past 15 years conflicts have increased during periods of water scarcity such as the droughts of 2004 and 2009. In Samburu County, for example, migrations have been caused by violent conflicts over diminishing natural resources and political-economic processes. In such a stressed environment, the number of conflicts and casualties is likely to increase, as is the number of people forced to migrate. Nonetheless the international community still hesitates over acknowledging the existence of climate refugees. The time has come for the international community to deal with the issue and to consider climate change as a powerful pull factor for migrants. In 2007, Ban Ki-moon, then UN Secretary General, described the conflict in Darfur as the world’s first climate change conflict. There is a growing literature on the link between climate change, resource scarcity, migration and conflict intensity that clearly shows that food insecurity, natural resource depletion and the adverse impacts of environmental degradation and climate change are among the root causes of migration and forced displacement. Effects of the conflict-food security nexus vary across conflict zones, but common features are the disruption of food production and food systems, the plundering of crops and livestock, and the loss of assets and incomes, hence directly and indirectly affecting food access. A recent study, the first comprehensive examination of the potential impact of global climate on armed conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, found that “deviations from moderate temperatures and precipitation patterns systematically increase the risk of conflict, often substantially, with average effects that are statistically highly significant”. According to FAO, investing in sustainable agriculture and rural livelihoods can prevent conflicts related to natural resources and help reduce tensions, especially where food supplies and markets are severely strained. This requires environmentally sustainable livelihood strategies for the affected populations, including displaced people and host communities; mitigation and prevention of pastoralist conflicts linked to trans-boundary movements; sustainable land conflict resolution between displaced people and host communities.
Climate change is a huge challenge that Kenya and Africa have to take on urgently. A new African leadership is needed in a time of climate risk both at the national and continental levels. Among the strategies policymakers may formulate to respond to this challenge, there is the possibility of exploring climate-smart farming techniques, more diversification of economic activity, a shift towards more coordinated urban development for a better model of urban growth, the promotion of a modern energy transition, the improvement of gender equity to raise women’s inclusion and welfare and benefit economic productivity.