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Herders face dreadful dilemma as drought plaguing vast areas of the Horn of Africa intensifies

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There is nothing for livestock to eat in the parched plains of Kenya. Photo: Stock image

There is nothing for livestock to eat in the parched plains of Kenya. Photo: Stock image

Animal carcasses lie by the side of the road in northern Kenya. Photo: Lisa Murray/Concern Worldwide

Animal carcasses lie by the side of the road in northern Kenya. Photo: Lisa Murray/Concern Worldwide

Cattle carcasses lie by the side of the road around 35km south of Garissa, in Tana River County, Kenya on July 2nd 2022.

Cattle carcasses lie by the side of the road around 35km south of Garissa, in Tana River County, Kenya on July 2nd 2022.

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There is nothing for livestock to eat in the parched plains of Kenya. Photo: Stock image

It was a journey that ended in heartbreak and death. Sometime in recent weeks, a herder searching for pasture and water brought his weak and hungry cattle to Mbalambala where their rotting carcasses now lie.

Maybe the animals could not make it up the steep embankment to the water pan, a simple reservoir dug out of the red earth.

Or maybe they reached its rim only to make the devastating discovery that it was empty.

Far from home, with the next water pan 15km away and also dry, and none of the hoped-for pasture to be found, they were stranded.

The drought that followed them like a shadow for the past two years finally caught up with them and they could go no further.

This was the fate of more than one herder. Around the water pan lay the remains of at least 45 cattle in varying stages of decay.

Only a few had been torn apart. There were so many that they were more than the hyenas that prowl the bush in the wilderness of North Eastern Kenya needed to satisfy their hunger.

Herders from this largely pastoralist society face a dreadful dilemma as the drought plaguing vast areas of the Horn of Africa intensifies.

Kenya’s longest river, the Tana, runs through their county and unlike other rivers, it is still flowing, but there is nothing for livestock to eat in the parched plains it navigates. 

In normal years when the rains come in spring and autumn, water pans overflow, leaving the surrounding ground soaked and ripe for lush grass growth, the remnants of which some herders still hope to find.

Faced with the choice between their animals dying of thirst or hunger, the men who walked to Mbalambala dared to hope they might cheat both.

But the herders are stalked by another spectre. Disease is preying on the weakened livestock that have survived this long, and pneumonia is claiming many.

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Vaccination programmes are being rolled out across the affected regions, supported in some communities by Irish aid agency, Concern.

Their hope is to give every cow, goat, sheep and camel still standing the best chance of survival until the drought ends.

That gives the people a better chance of survival because these are not just livestock, they are livelihoods and lifelines.

A cow dead on a dusty trail represents a loss of €250 – a fortune to families who lead the most spartan existence.

It means no milk, an essential protection against malnutrition in children who have a severely limited diet even in good times.

It means no money on market day. It throws another shadow of doubt over an already perilous future.

We were told a herder would carry his fallen animal in his arms if he could.

Instead, the man who sets out to save his cattle and returns empty-handed must try to outpace a growing terror while shouldering a heavy burden of despair on the lonely walk home.


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