Aug 24, 2010

Maasai: A Parched Land That Yields Only Suffering

Severe global desertification caused by economic necessity and man-made progress has resulted in a catastrophic situation. It’s a problem facing not just Kenya, but many other parts of the world, as the UN made clear last week when it launched the Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification.

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The Masai are just one tribe suffering from the harshest effects of global desertification, writes Jody Clarke in Kajiado,  Kenya

SALATO KOSHOOI casts his eye over Esilange Oltepsei, a rare watering hole in the semi-arid grasslands that surround the town of Kajiado, 60km south of Nairobi.

Two years ago it went dry, forcing him and other members of the Masai tribe to embark on a one-week trek to Nairobi National Park, where they hoped to find a place to graze their livestock. Their journey ended in failure.

“I used to have 200 cattle, now I have eight,” he says, chewing on the bark of an acacia tree, which he has fashioned into a toothpick.

“Since the food aid ended in July, I’ve only been able to afford 2kg of flour a day for me and my family. I just hope I have enough to last until the rains in October.”

The 2006-2008 drought is still being felt in Kenya. But whether the rains come in two months or not, a longer-term menace waits for the Masai herders of Kajiado – desertification.

Cattle kick up dust on their way to the watering hole and the poisonous Ipomoea hildebrandtii weed, which springs up when vegetation has been exhausted, is an unmistakable presence on the parched landscape.

The drought is not the only reason the soil has been eaten up. Irregular rain patterns, a rising population and falling water tables caused by the local flower industry have all put pressure on land traditionally used for livestock grazing. The cutting down of trees for firewood and the mining of gypsum and lime by cement companies have also had an impact. These activities have ruined the topsoil, rendering it useless for farmers and herders. And the increasingly frequent dry seasons have made matters worse. The natural regeneration of vegetation cover and soils in arid zones takes five to 10 times longer than in areas with greater and more regular rainfall, says the United Nations. Consequently, it will be years before the land returns to its natural state.

It’s a problem facing not just Kenya, but many other parts of the world, as the UN made clear last week when it launched the Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification.

It is a 10-year-long push to mobilise action in the fight against desertification and aims to raise awareness of the world’s drylands. These make up more than 40 per cent of the world’s land surface and are home to 2.1 billion people.

Globally, about 24 per cent of that land is degrading says the UN. And with 1.5 billion people depending directly on it, it is affecting the traditional way of life of the people, says Ayub Macharia, acting director of Kenya’s National Environmental Management Agency.

“Women are being forced to walk further for water, which means they spend less time on other duties in the home” he says.

There are fewer livestock so families are unable to pay dowries while biodiversity, important for food gathering, is disappearing. People, as a consequence, have become desperately poor.

Across Kenya, semi-arid areas are fast turning into a desert, Macharia warns. “Unless we start planting trees, these areas will turn into a harsh desert in the next 10 years.”

Desertification is not a new problem. “But we need new solutions,” says Tony Simons, deputy director general of the World Agroforestry Centre. His agency has been analysing soil sediments in the rivers that run into Lake Victoria, to assess where soil run-off is at its worst in Kenya. This should help it target solutions to specific regions.

Meanwhile, Irish NGO Concern has been working with Masai communities in Kenya to improve water sources and encourage the breeding of indigenous livestock such as the red Masai sheep, as these are more adaptable to dry seasons than imported European breeds.

But while all these measures will help to combat the onset of desertification, says Anne O’Mahony, country director of Concern in Kenya, “there is no guarantee that it will end the suffering”.

In Moyale, in northern Kenya, where rainfall patterns have changed dramatically in recent years, she says there is nothing that can be done to stave off another emergency such as the ones Concern has reacted to in recent years. “There used to be clearly defined seasons. That’s no longer the case, so it is becoming more challenging for farmers to make plans as a result. Another emergency is inevitable.”