As Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid regions enter a fifth consecutive failed rainy season, there’s no doubt the drought is a driving factor in 4.5 million Kenyans needing urgent humanitarian relief. Unfortunately, the worst drought in 40 years has received minimal national media attention during the general election, which masked the politicization of aid and inadequacy of humanitarian relief efforts. Two complicating factors exacerbate the current humanitarian needs, and their impact is acknowledged even less than the drought.
Primarily starting in the 1980s, a complex interplay between transhumance pastoralism and other factors (such as intra and inter-ethnic conflicts, perennial droughts, penetration of western education and medicare, infrastructural developments such as water and roads, and humanitarian relief efforts, among others) have seen pastoralists take up more sedentary lifestyles. For instance, data from my Doctoral research at the University of Nairobi under the Rights and Resilience Project (RARE) suggest that approximately 85% of residents in Samburu West and East sub-counties consider their current settlement permanent.
Whilst livestock rearing remains the backbone of pastoral economies, and pastoralists still migrate far for water and pasture, many of them have taken up diverse livelihood strategies closer to their permanent settlements. These new economic activities include, but are not limited to, boda boda (motorbike) services, opening shops, bead making, tour guide services, and producing crops through rain-fed irrigation farming (in Samburu West). These so-called ‘alternative livelihoods’ have especially been taken up by women and young people, who traditionally have had less control over livestock wealth.
My Fieldwork suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted these activities in Samburu and continues to impact these communities. Livestock trade took a nosedive, particularly during the ‘lock-down’ period in 2020 when the demand slumped, and many livestock markets were closed. Today, livestock stock prices are still lower because the livestock are undernourished, and many pastoralists have migrated long distances to escape the drought, taking them far from formal livestock markets. Thus, the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are amplifying the crisis resulting from the ongoing drought.
I’ve previously discussed that during disasters such as COVID-19, the marginal populations suffer the most and the impacts are often long-lasting, which is certainly the case in Northern Kenya’s Arid and Semi-arid regions. The impacts of the pandemic on ‘alternative livelihoods’ is far-reaching. I, for instance, talked with several women who normally generate income from beadworks, who found their business came to a standstill when tourism stopped. Even though Kenya has recently seen improved tourism activities partly due to an increase in domestic tourism, the economic effects of this trajectory may not yet have been felt at the grassroots. Several people who used to operate small eateries have not been able to re-enter the market because they have either drawn on their capital for subsistence or because of the poor state of the post-COVID-19 economy.
In short, the various adaptive measures that pastoralists have taken to complement livestock rearing have significantly been impacted by the pandemic, increasing their vulnerability to ongoing and anticipated drought.
There are two major implications to the interplay between COVID-19 economic fallout and drought. Firstly, we must recognize that for some households, the current drought occurs in the context of a pre-existing vulnerability following the previous shock, necessitating a more urgent and complex response strategy.
Secondly, it is typical for humanitarian response to be targeted at the ‘most vulnerable’ in society. This often focuses aid on people entirely relying on the now migrated livestock for a livelihood or ‘pastoral drop-outs’ who live around towns after losing all their livestock to drought and other calamities.
However, it is also important to include those who have taken up diverse livelihood practices, including small-scale businesses, that the COVID-19 pandemic has now hit over time. A humanitarian cash transfer program targeting the ‘poorest of the poor’ would inadvertently leave out budding entrepreneurs, who are yet to recover from the adverse impacts of the pandemic. Without a deliberate focus on this category of pastoralists with diversified livelihoods, there is a likelihood that they will spiral into destitution, eroding years of progressive, adaptive capacity. The risk is that by excluding this group from aid, we disincentivize the very diversification of livelihoods which we are promoting with our resilience programmes.
Jackson Wachira is a PhD student at the University of Nairobi: He writes in his personal capacity and can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.