By Jonathan Kalan, Nairobi, Kenya
At a water trucking and distribution point in Lagos, 20 kilometers from Garissa, Kenya, over 3,000 pastoralists temporarily survive off water brought in each week by the Kenya Red Cross during severe droughts. Photo: Jonathan Kalan.
In the hot, dry and harsh landscapes of northeastern Kenya skirting the Somali border, hundreds of thousands of nomadic pastoralists continue to eek out a meager living from the land.
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Yet by September of last year, conditions were unbearable. It had been 16 months and counting since a single drop of rain touched down on the scorched earth, and the region was crippled by the worst drought in decades, forcing residents to survive near-famine conditions. The riverbeds were emptied, leaving nothing but dusty scars on the landscape. Carcasses of goats, donkeys and camels littered the side of the 370 km dirt highway between the two major towns of Wajir and Garissa, and thousands of people were forced to set up temporary shelters, kept alive by charity.
The rains in the horn of Africa are becoming more sporadic, erratic, unpredictable and unreliable. However, a lack of rain alone does not produce famine. While some countries have the infrastructure, policies, programs, and emergency relief services to be able to provide resources for their citizens in times of crisis, this area of Kenya, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.
When it comes to the basic necessity of water, the northeastern region of Kenya is plagued by both a lack of infrastructure and extreme marginalization. Inhabited by mostly ethnic-Somali pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on their livestock, people carry their homes on the backs of camels and move nomadically from one water source to the next. They don’t vote, and even if they did, their voice would matter little—the region has such little economic importance due to lack of resources. Its primary purpose is to serve as a buffer between Kenya and war-torn Somalia. An aid worker once mentioned offhand that “…elected officials want to keep these people poor. That way, come election time, they can easily buy their vote and retain power.” Though this can’t be verified, it certainly is a common perception here.
Across the region, infrastructure is still the greatest challenge: 96% of sub-Saharan African agriculture is still rain dependent, meaning only 4% can actually grow and harvest crops when the rains don’t come, or during the dry seasons. Resources are vastly underused, and the lack of agricultural innovation and investment is tragic. There is water, underground and above ground, that’s not being tapped into.
For example, along the Tana River in Garissa, the Kenya Red Cross estimates that only 10% of rivers capacity is actually being harnessed. The African Development Bank has cited that the region’s lack of infrastructure—roads, housing, water, electricity, sanitation—reduces its output by 40%.
While rains may be uncontrollable, famine isn’t. The ability to access, harness, and distribute what lies atop or just beneath the surface is perhaps both the greatest failure and opportunity of the region. This photo-essay explores the current situation of water in Kenya’s driest areas, and the multiple efforts of private and public organizations working around the region to fix it. See photo essay »