Devastating Drought Alters Life for Kenya Nomads

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Like most of the roughly 3,000 settlers living in Dela, she blames several factors for her abandonment of nomadic life: droughts; a growing population that puts more pressure on grass and water; and the degradation of the land as new settlements sprawl outward.

"Before when the pasture was low, we'd go somewhere else," she said. "But now there are settlements everywhere, so where do we go?"

The small villages are sprouting up all along the rutted roads of Kenya's northeastern province, a vast poverty-stricken region long neglected by the central government. During the day, the drab colors of the huts blend into the bush, but in the evening clusters of night fires glimmer through the thorns.

Dela itself did not exist fifteen years ago. Now its population swells with each drought, said District Commissioner Dima Omar.

As the families gather, the concentration of animals in one place overgrazes the land.

"Once their animals die they don't have any other resources except for maybe the trees around them," Omar said. "We try to educate people not to cut down the trees and to use old wood, but it is hard."

Climate change has been cited as a contributing factor to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, where nomads and farmers have clashed over shrinking grazing grounds. It's blamed for exacerbating tensions among tribes in Uganda, northern Kenya, and Ethiopia, where watering holes are drying up and lands that were once fertile now struggle to produce crops.

This month, African leaders agreed to seek $65 billion from the developed world to mitigate the effect of carbon emissions. They will present the demand at a global summit on climate change in Copenhagen in December.

But James Shikwati, a leading Kenyan economist, said more research was needed to separate the effects of climate change from issues like population growth, poor farming practices and cyclical weather patterns.

"We need to be extremely careful not to lump all the problems together," he said.

If drought is forcing the nomads into towns, it is partly the desire to educate their children that keeps them there.

None of Dela's 210 students want to go back to the nomadic life, said teacher Calvin Mobisa. They want to be vets, doctors, scientists and pilots, and go to the places newspapers talk about. Drought is severing a generation of younger nomads from their traditions, and the harsh life their parents yearn for holds little appeal.

"You can do more things now than our parents could," said 15-year-old Ali Noor, whose keeps his shiny school shoes scrupulously clean of the ever-present dust. "You don't have to just live in the bush."