From rainstorms to drought – local perspectives on climate adaptation
In Baringo County, Kenya, agro-pastoral communities are struggling for water and food security in an environment severely affected by climate change. Here is a behind-the-scenes story of a research team from the Nordic Africa Institute doing fieldwork to record local experiences of resilience, (in)equity, and the pressing need for adaptive solutions.
By Olivia Ebenstål Almeida, research assistant, The Nordic Africa Institute
The evening rainstorm has left a trail of damage, with numerous fallen trees and collapsed utility poles, leaving hundreds of families without electricity. Yet, as the sun scorches the fields the next day, the ground shows no signs of moisture. The land is bare, with a few thorny shrubs and termite nests pointing to the blue sky.
Our field research team has arrived in the semi-arid landscape of Baringo County in northwest Kenya. The region is known for its natural beauty and diverse wildlife, but the past decade has brought long and intense droughts, with the hottest temperatures since satellite records began. We are here to learn from members of agro-pastoral communities about their understandings of and experiences with social equity and adaptation to Baringo’s changing and increasingly harsh climate.
The message is clear: the distant rumble of thunder is no longer a sign of rain – it is a sign of trouble. Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions have contributed to land degradation, reduced crop and livestock production, water scarcity and food insecurity. People largely survive on herding hardy animals, such as goats and sheep, but even they are thinning out with the shrinking and degraded pasturelands.
The hardship is amplified by negative coping strategies that tend to reinforce existing vulnerabilities and exposure to climate risks. Capacities to adapt are largely defined by an uneven distribution of impacts and vulnerability to climate change between different social groups, which are shaped by long-standing socioeconomic inequalities, with disparities in mobility, access to resources, decision-making and information.
The women and men we meet repeatedly mention ‘the water crisis’ as the principal threat to communities’ survival. Rain-fed farming systems are the mainstay of livelihoods, with croplands and livestock the primary source of income for 80 percent External link, opens in new window. of the population. However, erratic rainfall and drought have led to water scarcity, aggravated by poor water and sanitation infrastructure and management. The water crisis destroys crops and reduces herds – but also makes daily life more painful. The heaviest burden often falls on women, who spend several hours each day walking long distances to fetch water.
“Goats become thin because of the droughts, so they do not produce milk as usual. At the same time, when there is [a] water shortage like now, you have to travel for long distances with the goats so they can drink water,” a middle-aged female livestock farmer explains.
Without water to grow crops, farmers have returned to small-scale charcoal burning as a last resort to generate the cash needed to buy food and other necessities. The vegetation dotting the hillsides is punctuated with plumes of smoke from the fires. In interviews, many people say they are having to reduce the quality and number of meals, and are forced to selling off livestock. School dropouts have also risen and young people are resorting to criminal activities in search of income. As a consequence, forest degradation, low levels of education, poor nutritional intake and insecurity threaten opportunities for sustainable adaptation.
“It is going to take this young generation the wrong way… Our animals, the little we have, have been sold for school fees and for families to feed themselves. Now soon we shall run out of everything. No schooling, and then no food. So where are we going to go? Most people will die,” a male teacher specialising in the environment at the local school explains.
To improve resilience against the consequences of climate-induced disasters, agroforestry initiatives in Baringo incentivise farmers to plant trees for their agricultural benefits and to sequester carbon. However, perceptions of costs and risks among community members, coupled with unequal participation, tend to prevent widespread uptake.
An elderly male farmer proudly shows off the 14 mango tree seedlings he received last year from an international development organisation. The farmer was considered a model case, with good prospects for carrying out the project, but he is far from representing the vast majority of the community. The climatic conditions necessitate regular irrigation to sustain the seedlings and to avoid termite attacks.
The farmer spends four dollars a day to transport twenty litres of water from the local borehole. In addition, he says that “a fenced compound, good soil and proper management” are essential to succeed. These expenses are beyond the reach of the majority of villagers. Another village member who joined the tree-growing initiative presents a contrasting case:
“Most trees have died due to the drought… I feel very disappointed because I have put some work into them and this didn’t turn out as expected.”
According to a ‘lead farmer’ on the project, who has been elected by the community to recruit and train other farmers on tree planting in the village, eligibility depends on land ownership, which excludes marginalised groups without land and most women, since men are the primary landowners. This reflects a greater limitation on women’s participation in climate change initiatives. While women contribute significantly to food security and adaptation efforts, social norms and customary practices largely control and shape their participation.
“Because I am under him, he wants to decide about the money and budget, so that I cannot have anything.… The money I get, I think he should not budget [laughs]. Because I am the one who is struggling to get the money. I was the one to plant the trees on my own without his help,” a middle-aged female livestock farmer laments when asked how she would use future profits generated from the tree planting.
Appropriateness in relation to local climatic conditions is highlighted as another aspect that needs to be considered when implementing tree-planting projects. The environmental teacher, who has led several climate-smart initiatives of his own at the local school, highlights the importance of selecting trees that are suited to the local environment:
“You know now, everyone is coming up with his idea of planting fruit trees. But, I just happen to have a problem with this… People have forgotten that this place is unique. At night, in this area, there is no breeze, and if there is, it is dry winds. The other area is protected by the hills, it's very high, so it gets a lot of shade which actually brings a lot of moisture. But this area is dry and there is not enough water to sustain the trees… So, I planted mwarubaini [indigenous trees] instead and [they are] doing well right now.”
The need for climate adaptation in rural communities creates a space for project developers and the private sector to introduce various ways to improve resilience, such as the tree-planting initiative described here. This sits within a larger wave of climate-smart agricultural initiatives that have the potential to create a triple-win effect External link, opens in new window. of food security, emissions reduction and sustainable adaptation.
Yet, time and again these initiatives fall short because they overlook social dimensions of equality and justice. A transformative approach to strengthening resilience requires greater attention to social equity dynamics and the active participation of various social groups in society. There is also an opportunity to learn from the community and to integrate indigenous people’s knowledge to reinforce resilience.
The stories from Baringo County demonstrate the importance of the critical questions the science community External link, opens in new window. has posed in relation to sustainability and equality of adaptation responses. Climate action should be appropriate to local contexts and based on community perspectives. By putting local peoples’ realities at the heart of the global climate debate, there is an opportunity to produce effective and just climate adaptation plans.
The adverse implications of climate change cannot be treated in isolation from other determinants of risk. Poverty and lack of broad-based development are strong predictors of vulnerability and exposure to climate change. Without ensuring that people have access to the right institutional, technical and financial resources they need to adapt, climate-smart initiatives such as tree-planting projects cannot be successfully rolled out. Accelerating inclusive development, including addressing water and food security, health care, infrastructure, financial services and social protection, alongside adaptation, is necessary to improve resilience.
Olivia Ebenstål Almeida
Research Assistant at the Nordic Africa Institute
This blog refers to research conducted in September 2023 as part of the CGIAR Research Initiative on Climate Resilience (ClimBeR) External link, opens in new window.. The author would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contribution to the CGIAR Trust Fund.