You can't blame it all on the weather

Turner, Mark


Book ID 428

See also

Turner, Mark You can't blame it all on the weather, 2000
Extract Author: Mark Turner
Extract Date: 2000 Oct 14

You can't blame it all on the weather

It was a journey from Nairobi, Kenya's capital, to the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha that drove it home.

The familiar five-hour drive is usually a pleasant sojourn through some of the region's most touristic countryside. Peaceful agricultural scenes are framed by green, gentle hills and, on a clear day, you can see magnificent Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak.

But as East Africa's worst drought in decades grew deeper, the birthplace of mankind was less evocative of the Garden of Eden than the Oklahoma dust bowl.

Rickety wooden shacks in one-street villages loomed straight out of a Sergio Leone western, creaking amid swirling dust devils. Masai herdsmen drove long lines of cattle through parched moonscapes, their red cloaks the only colour in an ocean of brown dust.

Cacti were perched in empty gullies against a backdrop of singed and eroded hills. Crops crackled with dryness, trucks kicked up trails of choking clouds, jagged trees lay fallen and blanched like skulls.

As Kenya, Ethiopia, Som-alia and many other countries faced their third year of drought in a row - the worst in 50 years - there was no shortage of such images. With 14m people at risk of severe malnutrition, and aid agencies appealing daily for funds, the all-too familiar scenes of famine were once again on television screens.

But seeing them on the way to Arusha was deeply shocking. In other parts of the region, such as dry northern Kenya, such scenes are not entirely unexpected: more easily dismissed as a short-term disaster. In northern Tanzania they appeared as a symptom of something profoundly wrong.

The discussion in the car inevitably turned to ecology. Was this the sign of a permanent shift in the climate? Were western aid efforts missing a bigger picture - sustaining populations in parts of the world where human settlements are no longer viable?

Even as the rains appear at last to be returning, these are difficult questions. There is growing evidence that parts of a country such as Kenya are fast exceeding their capacity to support the population, raising the pos-sibility of a people permanently dependent on hand- outs.

The United Nations' Global Environment Outlook, says African land degradation, exacerbated by recurrent droughts, 'is threatening economic and physical survival'. By 2025, 25 African countries will be subject to water scarcity or water stress. Wars may be fought over access to fresh water.

But the trends disguise two elements. The first is the possibility of long-term climate change, brought on by global warming; the second is human interaction with the environment.

The question of permanent change is highly contentious. Certainly, there are indications that the planet is heating up and the temptation is to conclude that East Africa is seeing the beginning of perennial drought.

The 1990s saw an unusual concentration of droughts - and some experts suggest that if the rains fail again this year, it will begin to look like a major shift.

The evidence, however, especially in countries such as Kenya, where statistics are incomplete, is far from clear. Peter Usher, a climate expert who has worked for years in East Africa, says he is not convinced and suggests the Weather may always have been this way.

'In 1949-50 there was a drought worse than this,' he says, and points to another severe dry spell from 1975 to 1976. He adds that in the 1920s - long before today's talk of global warming - there were fears surrounding melting ice on Mount Kenya.

Markus Walsh, an ecologist from the Nairobi-based International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, says ground samples do not suggest today's extremes necessarily fall outside historical norms.

Ancient records certainly show no shortage of problems similar to today's drought. An Ethiopian text, for example, called the 'Mashafa Seneskar', talks of 'great tribulation' as far back as the 800s, where 'God restrained the heavens so they cannot rain upon the land'. And as documentation becomes more consis-tent, so does evidence of regular disasters - with Arab and religious texts charting a series of droughts from the 15th century onwards.

What scientists do agree on, however, is the second element: even if the region's climate has not altered, the way humans interact with the land has.

Fifty years ago, Kenya had 5m people. Today, there are 30m. In 50 years that number could double. The land has never known such pressures - and settled agriculture has, over the past 50 to 100 years, spread apace to marginal areas that can ill cope with the demands.

Most Kenyan farmers - predominantly smallholders - cannot afford fertilisers, so phosphorus and potassium levels in the soil are quickly depleted.

Herders have expanded their livestock numbers exponentially, leading to overgrazing in areas that, according to many wildlife experts, are not suited to the moisture-hungry cattle.

At the same time, Kenya's forests have been and continue to be raped, often by corrupt and politically connected people - with profound implications for water catchment and soil protection. The scenes around Mt Kenya are dramatic, with rows and rows of trees felled, and little evidence of sufficient replanting.

ICRAF sees some hope that deforestation might be reversed as global trading in pollution quotas develops - with northern companies which seek to emit more carbon dioxide paying for new planting. But with today's political uncertainties that seems some way off.

In the short-term, say critics, East African governments must grapple with a largely rural and uneducated population - and look closely at agricultural support services, rural marketing, credit facilities and sustainable agriculture policies. Land security, undermined by corruption or misguided laws, must be guaranteed.

The message is that with the right approach, much of today's calamity could be mitigated. But while Daniel arap Moi, the Kenyan president, continues to blame God for Kenya's tribulations, that is simply not happening fast enough, and the aid appeals continue.

Extract ID: 1535