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‘All I can think about is the children’s future’: drought devastates Kenya | Global development

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Dahabley smells of rotting flesh. Bodies of starved cows lie in various stages of decomposition, after being dragged to the outskirts of the village in Wajir county, north-east Kenya. They are added to on a near-daily basis and fester in the heat amid multiplying flies.

North-east Kenya is well used to spells of drought, but it is experiencing the worst in living memory. As the region’s short rainy season, which starts in October, draws to an end, parts of Wajir have only seen small showers and other areas have had no rain at all for more than a year.

In October, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade bloc, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 26 million people were struggling for food after consecutive seasons of poor rainfall in the Horn of Africa.

Map showing Garissa, Wajir and Mandera counties near border of Somalia

Wild animals are dying and herders are reporting losses of up to 70% of their livestock. With conflicts raging in Ethiopia and Somalia, aid agencies are struggling to assess the extent of the crisis. Now, as the next four-month-long dry season starts, there are mounting fears that large numbers of people will die.

In a round hut of woven sticks in Dahabley, Hodhan Issack, 22, is increasingly concerned about the health of her seven children. “I overthink things, and honestly, I think I’m going mad sometimes,” she says. “All I can think about is the children’s future.”

Her husband left to find work months ago. He occasionally sends money, but poor phone reception means they rarely speak. All 10 of their cows have died, and the three goats she has left from a herd of 50 are very weak and are surviving on the children’s leftover rice and maize.

A woman in a headscarf sits outside a crude hut of sticks with her small son while another woman sits with her back to the camera and a curious girl looks on
Hodhan Issack with her son outside her home in Dahabley, Wajir county, Kenya. The prolonged drought is pushing pastoralist communities to the brink. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Without making money from livestock, Issack can no longer afford monthly 500 Kenyan shilling (£3.30) school fees for her eldest two and they have not attended classes for a month. Her two youngest have thin hair and are visibly malnourished. Issack says she is struggling to cope. Mohamed Abdi, teacher at Dahabley primary school, says there are only 60 pupils left out of 120 as families have left in search of pasture.

Animals are central to the way of life of nomadic communities across the vast semi-desert plains of northern and eastern Kenya. A healthy cow is worth about $300, a goat $50 and a camel $1,000. Livestock act as both a bank account and a key source of food. The cows still alive in Dahabley are increasingly weak, sitting emaciated in the shade of gnarled trees around the village, with their value decreasing by the day.

Kusow Mohamed, 52, says that of his herd of 30 camels, 10 have died and the rest are thin, their fatty humps all but gone. Yet camels are one of the most climate-resilient mammals. “It’s unheard of,” says Mohamed, “we have never known them to die like this. Now we can’t afford to buy diesel to pump water from the village borehole.”

East of Dahabley in Eyrib, in Sabuli wildlife conservancy, small businesses and homes are boarded up and more than 70% of the residents have left, according to the assistant village chief, Abdi Karim. “We haven’t had any rain here in 24 months. Some people have lost everything and have migrated to the cities.”

River water has not flowed into the reservoir for at least eight months and people have been reduced to drinking salty water from boreholes. Wildlife is dying. In November, 10 giraffes, weak from lack of food and water, died after getting stuck in thick mud as they tried to reach a puddle of water in the middle of the reservoir. Their bodies were dragged out to prevent contamination of the reservoir and six left together are pecked at by birds as they lie on the outskirts of the village.

“We have lost 102 reticulated Somali giraffes in Wajir, Garissa and Mandera over the last three months,” says Sharmake Mohamed, chair of the North Eastern Conservancies Association.

An aerial picture of the bodies of six giraffes in a desert landscape dotted with thorn trees
The bodies of six giraffes, weak from lack of food and water, that died after getting stuck in mud. They were dragged out of the reservoir to prevent the precious water becoming contaminated. Photograph: Getty

Warthogs, oryx and ostriches have also been dying of thirst in the Sabuli wildlife conservancy. The region has also lost 30 hirola, also known as Hunter’s antelope, a critically endangered species.

“That’s 6% of the total that were left in the wild,” says Mohamed. The drought is pushing wildlife, humans and livestock to compete for water and vegetation in areas that have seen small amounts of rain, creating human-wildlife conflict, where lions and cheetahs have been preying on livestock. The giraffes were trying to drink from the water source meant for the community, which created tension, Mohamed says.

“Drought has become very frequent over the last 10 years. We could attribute it to climate change,” says Jully Ouma, disaster risk adviser for the IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre.

The rainfall cycle is being disrupted by rising temperatures. Ouma says the extra heat “causes a pressure system that redirects movement of winds … so moisture can be taken to areas where it used not to go”. This can lead to a drought cycle in some areas and flooding in others.

The communities suffering from drought in east Africa are among those who do the least harm to the environment, but whose lives are the most severely affected by the climate crisis.

Muhumed Noor is chairman of Dujis village in Garissa, Wajir’s neighbouring county. He points to the skeletal remains of cows that died a month ago. Nearly three-quarters of the villagers’ cattle have died.

Dead cows scattered in a scrubby desert
Dead cows rot near the village of Eyrib, Wajir county. Cattle represent savings as well as food for pastoralist communities. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Three water trucks are parked in the middle of Dujis. “They are waiting for money,” says Noor. The community has had to resort to buying water, at 45,000 Kenyan shillings (£300) for 10,000 litres.

“We need three [trucks] a week for the 350 households in Dujis,” says Noor. But with no healthy livestock to sell, the community is struggling to pay the drivers, who refuse to leave without payment. “They will not go until they have got their money. They give us a timeframe – a week, a month. If we fail to pay there could be violence,” he says.

“The rains have stopped now, so there is no hope of any other rain unless a miracle happens,” says Yusuf Abdi Gedi, Wajir’s local official for livestock and agriculture. The Wajir county administration is struggling to cope with the scale of the emergency and has hired 40 extra trucks on top of 18 of their own to distribute water. However, community leaders in Dahabley and Eyrib say they have not received government aid. “We have about 400 villages and we were not able to reach all of them,” says Abdi Gedi.

The authority’s efforts have been hamstrung by a lack of funds and it is now redirecting money from other projects to deal with the crisis. The actions of Mohamed Abdi, the former Wajir county governor impeached in April amid allegations of corruption, is said to have exacerbated the problem. “Systems were not in place and there was not enough resilience-building done prior to the drought so what we are doing is only fire fighting,” says Abdi Gedi.

A man drives six emaciated camels along in the desert
A camel herder looks for water for his livestock. The area has received less than a third of its normal rainfall since September. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

Abdi Gedi says Wajir has not received any extra funds from the national government since the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared a national disaster in September. That was supposed to “trigger support from the international community,” he says, adding that it had not happened to the extent needed.

Walking past the carcass of a dead oryx at the dried-up reservoir on the outskirts of Eyrib, Abdi Karim and his fellow teacher Abdikadir Aden say the chief of Eyrib is in Wajir asking the county government to send water.

“The government should look to their people,” Aden says. “Their people need them very much.”

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Biden threatens US blacklisting of Putin

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US president Joe Biden said Tuesday “Yes, I would see that” when asked by reporters if the US would blacklist Russian president Valdimir Putin if he invaded Ukraine. It would be the “largest invasion since World War Two” and would “change the world”, Biden said. The UK and US were also “in discussions” on disconnecting Russia from the Swift international payments system, British prime minister Boris Johnson also said Tuesday.

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Planned change to Kenya’s forest act threatens vital habitats, say activists | Global development

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Environmentalists are deeply concerned by the Kenyan government’s move to allow boundary changes to protected forests, watering down the powers of conservation authorities.

The forest conservation and management (amendment) bill 2021 seeks to delete clause 34(2) from the 2016 act, which makes it mandatory for authorities to veto anyone trying to alter forest boundaries. The same clause protects forests from actions that put rare, threatened or endangered species at risk.

Tabled by the National Assembly’s procedure committee, the amendment would weaken the role of Kenya Forest Service, mandated to protect all public forests, allowing politicians to decide who can change forest boundaries.

In an election year, many have read the proposal, due to be debated at the end of the month, as politically motivated.

The committee’s memorandum to MPs said current laws “unnecessarily limit the rights of any Kenyan to petition parliament” as provided for in the constitution.

An indigenous tree stands in habitat destroyed by charcoal makers
An indigenous tree, believed by local people to be ancient, stands in an area destroyed by charcoal makers in Nyakweri forest, Narok county, Kenya. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

But conservationists have said this would be a serious setback for the country, which was seeking to increase forest cover to 10% of land by 2022, up from 7.4%. Forest authorities said the move puts endangered species at risk, as well as clearing the way for unscrupulous individuals to encroach into forests that, according to a 2014 government paper, have been shrinking at a rate of 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) annually.

“I am astounded any right-thinking person would consider submitting or supporting such an amendment,” said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive at WildlifeDirect, a conservation NGO. “It will open the door to forest destruction after decades of hard work by agencies, communities and NGOs to increase forest cover, as committed to in our constitution. One can only read mischief in such a motion, with elections around the corner.”

A mural of Prof Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace prize winner by Pius Kiio Kitheka also known as Waji Dice.
A mural of Nobel Peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who campaigned to protect Kenya’s forests. Photograph: Boniface Muthoni/SOPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Kahumbu added: “At risk are indigenous forests and the biodiversity therein, the integrity of our water towers, generation of hydropower and productivity of our farms. The environmental experts of Kenya and the conservation community call on all citizens of Kenya to reach out to their MPs to wholeheartedly and aggressively reject this heinous bill.”

She said the amendment would destroy the legacy of Wangari Maathai, the late environmentalist and Nobel Peace prize winner, who was once attacked and seriously wounded as she led a tree-planting exercise in Nairobi’s Karura Forest.

In a tweet, Christian Lambrechts, executive director at Rhino Ark said: “Considering what Kenya has lost in the past, any change that weakens, rather than strengthens the mechanisms to protect our forests, is ill-advised.”

Rhino Ark has been spearheading an initiative to put up electric fences around Kenya’s public forests to hamper poachers and illegal incursions.

Dickson Kaelo, head of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, said the move by parliament is intended to “give legitimacy” to those who would destroy Kenya’s biodiversity.

“This is a well-calculated move to open the doors for forest excisions and allocation to private persons for development, and may even be a means to normalise current excisions. It is a threat to our forests coming at a time when we have a low forest coverage and a high risk of climate crisis-induced vulnerabilities. We call upon parliament to reject the amendment,” said Kaelo.

Protecting forests from developers has been a daunting task in Kenya.

Last July, Joannah Stutchbury, a prominent environmental activist, was killed near her home in Nairobi after her protracted opposition to attempts by powerful businessmen to build on Kiambu forest near the capital, Nairobi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has yet to fulfil a promise to catch her killers.



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EU court set to rule on Hungary, Poland rule-of-law challenge

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The European Court of Justice will rule on 16 February on the legality of the new mechanism linking EU funds to respect for the rule of law, which was challenged by Poland and Hungary last year. The tool has been threatened against Budapest and Warsaw where governments oversaw a decline in EU democratic standards. The court’s adviser ruled last month that their challenges should be rejected.

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