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Drought coping mechanisms in Kenya are unsustainable

In 2006, the government of Kenya declared drought to be a national disaster affecting 3.5 million people. This is not a new problem. During the last 30 years, Kenya has experienced several national drought-related food emergencies including major droughts in 1971, 1984 and 1992.

Government and international
relief responses have improved during this time. But better understanding of household
and community coping mechanisms could facilitate prevention of drought in Kenya.
It could also help policymakers take action to minimise the increasingly destructive
impacts of drought for the poorest households.

Research from Ohio University
and Oberlin College, in the USA, examines the evolution of drought coping strategies
in Tharaka, Kenya, during this thirty year period from 1971 to 2001. Tharaka is
a semi-arid zone located to the east of Mount Kenya,
an area that has been politically and economically marginalised since the
colonial period. It is home to some of Kenya’s poorest and most neglected

The study examines how
drought coping mechanisms have changed over time in three different wealth
groups. It analyses these changes against the backdrop of a number of wider
transformations in the region: privatisation of landownership, population
growth, political decentralisation, conflict over natural resources, changing
market conditions and environmental shifts. The study reveals that in Tharaka:

  • Livestock movement has drastically decreased, as
    has access to grazing areas.
  • Assistance from family has declined across all
    wealth groups (perhaps because the power of the clan in organising
    community initiatives has also decreased).
  • More households are seeking assistance from government,
    especially poor households.  
  • Hunting, fishing and consumption of wild foods
    have declined as preliminary responses to drought (as expansion of crop
    agriculture has reduced wildlife habitats).
  • Livestock sales remain a preferred form of coping
    among wealthier households; poorer households have developed other income
    sources such as the sale of wood fuel, charcoal and handicrafts.
  • Migration for wage labour outside the district
    has dramatically declined (partly because of reduced opportunities in the declining
    coffee sector, partly due to inflation).

The results illustrate that the
inhabitants of Tharaka are resilient people, shifting their coping responses to
adapt to larger political and economic changes in the region. But many of these
over the last 30 years have only transferred the impacts of drought rather than
eliminating vulnerability. Many of the new drought responses are also
incompatible with long-term livelihood security for the households involved.

The authors conclude that
policymakers and development planners must develop innovative policy solutions
(and stretch their imaginations beyond the popular options of eco-tourism and
game ranching). To prevent the wholesale abandonment and displacement of the
people of Tharaka and other arid and semi-arid lands, these policies need to:

  • Redress the political and economic
    marginalisation of dryland communities.
  • Explore the prospects for decentralisation and
    community-based resource management.
  • Develop beneficial links between dryland
    communities and urban markets.

A participatory dialogue
between government officials and NGOs is needed to begin this process.