Thursday 12 December 2019

Families torn apart as rain fails to come

Farmers in East Africa are already feeling the harsh effects of global warming. Our team reports from Kamanyaki in central Kenya

Paul Melia

Paul Melia

DOROTHY Kaari is 23, and mother to a two-month-old son, Austin Munene.

She lives on a smallholding in Tharaka Nithi in central Kenya, about 2km from the Tana River, one of Kenya's longest.

Farmer Mugendi Gachembe pictured with some of his crop of Sunflowers at his farm in the Kabuburu district of Kenya. Mugendi farm recieves water for irrigation from the Trocaire sponsored Gitogo Kamaindi Water project. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Farmer Mugendi Gachembe pictured with some of his crop of Sunflowers at his farm in the Kabuburu district of Kenya. Mugendi farm recieves water for irrigation from the Trocaire sponsored Gitogo Kamaindi Water project. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Twenty three year old Dorothy Kari pictured with her son,baby Austin Munene at the family homestead in Kamanyaki. Photo: Frank McGrath.
Farm worker,Peter Njeru (18) pictured watering tomatoes on Jermeigh's farm in the Kamaynaki area of Kenya. The farm has a water supply for irrigation from the Gitogo Kamaindi water project which is funded by Trocaire and managed and run by Trocaire's partners Caritas. Photo: Frank McGrath.

However, she has no way of accessing the water flowing in such abundance near her home, and is entirely reliant on rain to grow crops to feed her family and sell at the market.

But the rains haven't come, and her husband has left the family farm in search of food and work. It's not clear if he will return.

Dorothy is one of 130,000 people in the region coping daily with the effects of climate change. Average temperatures have risen by 1C since the 1970s, and the long rains in March/April and short rains in September/October, which once came like clockwork, are no longer as reliable as they once were.

That means that crops wither and die and with no reserves or money in the bank, many families are forced to beg for food, or rely on the generosity of neighbours or state intervention. In a worst-case scenario, they leave the land and move to the cities. In many respects, these people are like the canary in the mine when it comes to climate change.

In the Kamanyaki region, Chief Pius Muturi says that 62 families have been split recently, where the husband or wife has left in search or food.

"When the rains come, many people are living together with no problem," he said. "This separation is caused by the rains. This is pathetic. There's a lot of serious hunger because people have no food to eat."

Agriculture supports as many as 70pc of the Kenyan workforce, but making a living is increasingly difficult.

"The effect of climate change is so bad that when the rains come, they're unexpected and farmers are not prepared," Abraham Maruta, assistant director with Caritas, a Catholic Church group, said.

"I've seen a lot of change. I have only experienced drought once before, in 1983 and 1984, and it becomes very difficult for people to feed their families when the rains fail.

"They then turn to their livestock, and families now migrate to borrow or beg for food. The other effect is that children drop out of school because there's no money for fees. When the crops fail, they cannot afford medicine."

More prosperous farmers typically keep between 20 and 30 goats and a handful of cattle and chickens. In a good year, when the rains come, they can expect to sell crops at market which can yield around KES 100,000 (Kenya shillings), or €870.

But when costs are taken out, they're left with around €520 - less than €1.50 a day to feed their families, pay school fees and other essentials. The less-fortunate struggle on a daily basis.

But efforts are under way to help farmers adjust to the changing climate, particularly with the help of NGOs, including Trocaire.

Joel Kithure, Food Security Project Co-ordinator with Caritas, says that most farmers grow staple crops including pigeon peas, maize, millet and beans. Coffee and tea are also grown in the Highlands, and sold for cash.

He is helping farmers to change the types of crops they grow, and to access water.

"We're trying to improve the varieties, and we're looking at early maturing crops and those which grow quickly and require less water.

"Farmers are used to growing the same crops from season to season, so there are some challenges. Diversification is very important because you spread the risk if there's an outbreak of disease."

These changes are crucial. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that climate change will result in a 2pc decline in agricultural yields each decade until the end of the century. Food losses alone could jeopardise the lives of more than 2 billion people, of which 450 million are already undernourished.

Next month, Trocaire will distribute food to some 30,000 people in northern Kenya. It hopes that through education and changing farming practices, such interventions will become unnecessary.

Irish Independent

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