Understanding and overcoming disconnects between formal and informal drought and crisis prediction and response systems is central to the Observatory’s challenge question on effective early action at community levels. In early May 2023, we brought together a group of elders from pastoral communities in Isiolo and Marsabit counties of Kenya to explore how they see the key issues and priorities around drought prediction, preparation and response as well as early and anticipatory action. This post by Guyo Malicha Roba synthesizes the essence of their contributions. It is the second in a series of four posts on recent discussions convened in Kenya by the Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action.

Five consecutive seasons of failed rains have ruined the lives and livelihoods of pastoral communities in Kenya’s Isiolo and Marsabit counties. Seen by herders in the northern rangelands as the worst drought since 1984, the 2020-2022 drought decimated cattle and sheep populations, the fundamental assets of pastoral communities, with elders estimating about 50% and 70% mortality of grazers and browsers.  It also loaded additional burdens on already-stressed livelihoods and fragile environments: Except in few places, drought, livestock disease and inter-tribal conflicts are constant threats to people and their herds living in these arid and semi-arid areas.

It’s not that herders don’t know how to manage and respond to droughts. What’s changed is increasing uncertainty. In the past, drought cycles were more easily discernible, with regular cycles that can easily be handled locally through traditional inter-drought recovery strategies. Today, these drought cycles are no longer understood with confidence and the complexity of drastically changing seasonal patterns has disturbed recognizable cycles of drought.

While livestock mobility and other local actions were the hallmarks of effective responses that enhanced herd survival and helped people escape drought, the recent unprecedented drought tested these established practices to their limits with devastating results.

Why the drought impacts were so severe

While emergency responses deal with an immediate crisis, in the rangelands and dry areas of northern Kenya, the keys to effective drought management are properly planned and well governed grazing resources that sustain animals and, ultimately, people. Community elders we spoke with believe that weakened communal rangeland governance has eroded their abilities to implement well planned seasonal grazing plans. This failure erodes accountability in delivering required land use plans as well as regulation of settlements, access to land and water, and grazing tenure.

Although related groups traditionally band together to invest in joint ventures such as digging wells, sharing milk and meat among households, and protecting water or grazing rights, the inability of groups to optimally manage vast grazing resources was seen by the elders as a significant factor leading to high livestock mortality in 2020-2022 drought.

Weakening governance also contributed to unregulated livestock influx from other areas. Thus, grazing area like the Waso rangeland was a net importer of livestock from Marsabit and Wajir counties as well as from southern Ethiopia. Large numbers of additional animals put immense pressure on grazing land and leads to competition for water and pasture.

Livestock diseases also weakened the resilience of livestock to drought. Elders claimed that the system for disease surveillance, reporting and response is dysfunctional with livestock deaths still reported even in the post-drought period and more camels succumbing to ‘mysterious’ diseases in the last drought than cattle, sheep, and goats.

Inter-communal conflicts and insecurity also undermined effective drought response. Conflicts limit livestock mobility and herd survival, especially in accessing drought reserve areas like Yamicha and Kom-Sabarwawa areas in Isiolo North.

Finally, elders said that some breed improvement initiatives have undermined the resilience of local breeds to drought. They cited the example of rearing introduced Toggenburg goats as weakening drought survival rates of indigenous goats.

What worked during the recent crisis

Despite these challenges elders highlighted some drought responses that were successful

The cash transfer programme by the government and other partners helped to reduce the effects of food price increases and shocks. Cash transfers were seen to be timely and cash in the hand helped households buy food and other essentials.

Some herders, especially wealthier ones, acted early in the market, selling some animals and using the income to buy food, livestock feed and drugs and to truck in water. This strategy offered valuable peer to peer lessons for other herd owners.

Earlier investments in tsetse fly control opened some previously disease prone areas to allow livestock grazing. Ecto-parasite management was seen by the elders as important to manage the diseases that weaken livestock in the face of drought.

Other herders harvested local fodder and, especially, made extensive use of a local tuber called ‘Rupis’ to feed their livestock. Others in Marsabit Central, learning from previous droughts, planted grass varieties in the rainy season in anticipation of future drought time needs. These helped them manage fodder costs.

Pastoral community elders from Northern Kenya (photo credit: Community Jameel/Nathaniel Daudrich).

Opportunities for action research

  • A stand-out message from the conversation with elders is that priority must be given to invest in improved rangeland governance, grazing rights and tenure. Reinstating better grazing management and stronger advocacy on institutional strengthening is critical. Such an initiative could take advantage of provisions in the emerging community land bill to strengthen grazing committees at the local level. Better rangeland management can help communities better manage drought risks while building collective resilience.
  • A resilient herd is also important to building resilient livelihoods of people. Elders highlighted that some animals seemed to have unique capabilities to survive multiple droughts. The science behind this resilience needs to be researched and documented so survival traits in animals can be disseminated and used to boost traditional approaches to livestock breed selection and propagation.
  • Beyond genetics, elders highlighted effective disease control in livestock as essential to resist protracted droughts. Strengthening or re-building livestock disease surveillance, reporting, and response loops is important as well as research on diseases affecting camels – which are attracting increased attention due to their drought-resistant qualities.
  • Livestock restocking is a key point where further work is needed, especially to support destitute people who lost their livestock assets. Here, as well as paying attention to improved breeds that can better resist drought impacts, we need to also look at herd composition – smaller herds of high-quality animals versus larger lower-quality herds as well as wider choices on the most suitable mix of species that can resist future droughts.
  • Recognizing the success of cash-transfer and social protection systems in managing drought-induced food shocks, elders called for these to be expanded, improved and institutionalised.
  • Early Warning Systems were highlighted by elders as a key area to focus on, especially fixing ‘last mile’ connectivity, making use of traditional weather forecasts, integrating traditional with formal early warning, and building trust in the predictions and advice.

Finally, irrespective of the drought situation and threat levels, elders emphasised the importance of sustainable investment in drylands and dryland communities – to reduce the negative impacts of environmental shocks, to increase their abilities to manage risks and shocks, and to draw on their know-how to build resilient lives and livelihoods.

Read the other posts:

Community of practice meeting / Drought and food security datathon / Dialogue on local drought response and resilience

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