Staff Blog: Northern Kenya, More Resilient Communities on the Line


CARE International UK's Programme Director, John Plastow

Day 1

I've just arrived in Takaba, the principal town in the far north of Kenya, where CARE manages the Regional Resilience Enhancement Against Drought (RREAD) programme, promoting resilience to drought in communities that straddle the Kenya-Ethiopia border. Through the establishment of effective cross-border committees involving both traditional and customary authorities, CARE has played an important facilitative role enabling communities to move livestock over the border to areas where animals have a better chance of seeing out the drought. Scenes of mass animal death are not evident here - unlike in 2006. This is a testament to more forward-thinking agencies in the region. Lessons seem to be being learnt.

Staff Blog: Northern Kenya, More Resilient Communities on the Line  image 1The flip side of the realities of the situation was vividly demonstrated this afternoon, with the Takaba Water Users' Association. This citizens' committee reported that water supplies from the seven large water pans that have served some 300,000 people scattered across this semi-arid region have dried up. They are now left to fall back on three boreholes. Two, though, have run dry and the third, which produces potable but unpleasantly salty water, is all that people have to rely on. The borehole is pumping 24 hours a day and there is no functioning back-up generator. Should something go wrong, the town and tens of thousands of families would literally be left high and dry.

Communities here have managed the situation with support of organisations like CARE. But the severity of this drought seems to be finally catching up with them.

Day 2

Out in the dry and dusty drought-ridden plains of Northern Kenya the acacia trees have started turning green. It is as if they, like everything else, are hoping for rain. All around there is a certain desperation spreading. The District Education Officer in Banesa told me he had panicked calls from teachers saying they had completely run out of water. The animals have long since gone in search of water and pasture, and even the bees from what was a highly lucrative CARE-supported initiative have left because it is too dry.

In Banesa, as in Takaba yesterday, there was evidence that people had coped better this time around thanks to drought mitigation measures being put in place. The water reservoir that had been dug deeper had lasted longer, and better management of water distribution at cost meant the committee was able to pay for tankers itself rather than rely on hand-outs. Detailed plans between communities and local government officials meant that pasture was better managed. Indeed, I saw a planning meeting between local leaders and government officials, facilitated by CARE, planning what to do next time rains fell.

But time really is running out. Camels are dying in large numbers - always a bad sign. The short rains are due around mid-October. If they come, this now more resilient community will be able to see out the drought without their livelihoods becoming decimated. If not, then the prospects in this border area are indeed dire. The acacia though are changing - I was told by Adan Bishar, a local elder whose bees had flown and whose camels were dying - because they sense growing humidity in the air. There is then hope from nature, but the prospect of nature failing these people again is one nobody wishes to contemplate too fully.

Day 3

Moyale is a large town at the end of a series of long bumpy roads across the drylands of northern Kenya. Its size comes as something of a surprise after journeying though large semi-arid expanses broken up by only the very occasional small settlement. In the backstreets of Moyale though, I was in for an altogether different surprise in the shape of a project that, while modest in scale and low in visibility, is one which may well be responsible for effecting some profound changes in the lives of some of the most vulnerable and overlooked people across two countries.

Moyale is at the end of the road, not only in Kenya, but also in Ethiopia. Indeed, it is the only formal crossing point across the hundreds of kilometres between the two countries. This gives it great strategic significance and makes it a magnet for all sorts of trade.

I was taken to meet an unlikely mix of traditional leaders and women's representatives from border communities alongside local government officials from both Kenya and Ethiopia. They have come together in a process being facilitated by CARE International which aims to bring people together to work through deep seated and complex challenges such as endemic conflict, hunger and destruction of the environment that besets pastoral livelihoods. Listening to the impassioned feedback from the very different interest groups it was clear that this venture has started to tackle a range of major challenges.

’˜We have started to build distrust between us,' Galma Busula, an elder from across the Ethiopian border told me. ’˜We were losing our animals, others would smuggle valuable trees, we would see them disappear over the border and had no way of recovering them. Now though that situation is reversing itself'.

This view point was backed up by local government officials. Tadi Wako, a livestock officer said he had seen a remarkable turnaround with people taking responsibility to apprehend poachers. In the last month he spoke of one incident where 36 cattle and 7 donkeys had been returned to owners cross border.

Such behaviour is building up trust and has enabled other forms of reciprocation. In times of drought, communities do move between Ethiopia and Kenya in search of pasture. However, the extent and volume of movement had been curtailed of late, something that has impacted on livestock deaths.

’˜Confidence between us has built up as well as our ability to keep track of numbers of herds many of which are moving into the country to places like Yabello and Tertale,' Mesele Eticha, Provincial Land Administrator, told us.

This project and its cross-border committee is built on interactions between just five rural cross-border communities. It would be wrong to attribute too much to this experiment but there is no doubt that it is bringing about some very different outcomes and contributing to rebuilding relations between communities in ways that are proving highly valuable for people who all too often are living at the very edge of crisis.

Day 4

I was woken up early yesterday morning by a strange sound. It appeared to be raining. I had to get out of bed to convince myself that's what it really was. Sure enough, in a place which had barely experienced more than a day's rainfall in an entire year, it was indeed raining! Unfortunately though it was very overcast, the light rains did not last more than about fifteen minutes, no real use though hopefully an encouraging sign, for the "short rains" – an annual event that is vital to the region's subsistence farmers – are due at some point in October. Last year's so-called long rains failed completely in April and May and there hasn't been a drop since – till yesterday that is – a main reason why there is so much suffering going on in northern Kenya at present. All that is required is about three days of reasonably heavy rainfall and a lot of problems will be solved round here.

Much of the day was actually spent looking at the work that CARE has been doing supporting people in their efforts to improve their water supply. Wells are drying up and practically everywhere water pans - essentially small reservoirs - are also now exhausted. People rely on the few remaining wells that are still providing water or in a number of areas they have fallen back on expensive water trucking, something that mainly requires external humanitarian assistance.

CARE has been working with communities to help them manage their water more efficiently. Through RREAD, we help communities form water users' committees to regulate water supplies and charge user fees. These are critical to promote the upkeep of water pumps, pipes and drinking troughs for animals and to protect wells so that they are not contaminated. Dika Ibrahim, the Chair of the Godoma Cross Border Committee, took me to see work that was going on to protect one of the few remaining water sources in the area. This shallow well was supplying the water needs of both people and livestock on both the Kenyan and Ethiopian sides of the border. As we approached we came across several women driving donkeys laden with jerry cans full of water as well as large numbers of camels clearly heading in the same direction as we were.

Staff Blog: Northern Kenya, More Resilient Communities on the Line  image 2CARE had provided funds to supplement those of the community to help protect one of the two functioning wells. This involved several men lining the side of a very precarious looking pit with cement, essentially to stop debris falling inside and contaminating it. They were also planning to build steps down to the perimeter of this large and – to my eye – deep and treacherous facility. One shallow well had already been spoilt because baboons had fouled the water supply, leaving the communities with just one operational well. Accessing water from here was no straightforward matter. Six young men pulled up heavy buckets full of water in a human chain, perched on a rope ladder ascending from the depths. The top carrier transferred the water into troughs where thirsty camels waited patiently to satisfy their thirst. On the other side of the well two other young men were pulling up buckets on ropes to provide water to people who carried it away by donkey cart. The CARE project is designed to improve access, quality and reliability of supply and is one of a number of such initiatives we have been involved in.

Later on I was taken to a small recently excavated reservoir, which was dry awaiting the prospect of rainfall to fill it for next year's supply. Communities have been active in desilting and deepening water sources, one factor that has seen people ride out this year's drought slightly longer than in previous years.

By this time the clouds had evaporated and the short shower of this morning had done no more than damped the dusty earth for a short while. If the rains materialise this year then people are well placed to make the most of them. Meantime the waiting goes on.