Kenyans draw weapons over shrinking resources


Have the climate wars of Africa begun?

Tales of conflict emerging from this remote, arid region of Kenya have disturbing echoes of the lethal building blocks that turned Darfur into a killing ground in western Sudan.

Tribes that lived side by side for decades say they’ve been pushed to warfare by competition for disappearing water and pasture. The government is accused of exacerbating tensions by taking sides and arming combatants who once used spears and arrows.

The aim, all sides say, is no longer just to steal land or cattle, but to drive the enemy away forever.

It’s a combustible mix of forces that the United Nations estimates has resulted in at least 400 deaths in northern Kenya this year. Moreover, experts worry that it’s just the beginning of a new era of climate-driven conflict in Africa.

“There is a lesson in Darfur,” said Richard Odingo, vice chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global scientific body that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. “Every dry area has the potential to be a flash point if we are not careful.”

Africa is no stranger to conflict: The continent has been rocked by war, ethnic hatred, post-colonial border disputes and competition for resources, including oil and diamonds. But as the deserts encroach in Sudan, rainfall declines in the Horn of Africa -- a 15% decrease is predicted over the next few decades -- and fresh water evaporates in the south, climate change is transforming conflicts and kicking old tensions into overdrive.

“Climate change amplifies and escalates vulnerability,” said Achim Steiner, director of the U.N. Environment Program. “It doesn’t mean that conflict is inevitable, but it’s much more likely.”

Scientific and anecdotal evidence is mounting that the changes underway here are more than climatic variation. Droughts that once appeared every decade now hit every two or three years. Icecaps atop Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro are evaporating, and Lake Chad has lost 90% of its water since the 1960s.

And Africa is getting hotter. Maximum temperatures in Kenya’s Rift Valley and on its northern coast have risen by more than 5 degrees over the last 20 to 40 years, according to research by the group Christian Aid. Malaria, once rare in Kenya’s central highlands because the weather was too cold for the disease-spreading mosquitoes, has become a major health challenge.

But conflict is perhaps the most alarming symptom. Violence is becoming deadlier thanks to population growth and the proliferation of arms. Thirty years ago, a few dozen tribal warriors with spears might have clashed at a water hole. Today rural communities are armed with AK-47s and even national armies are jumping into the fray.

In October, Kenyan soldiers clashed with Sudanese tribesmen conducting a cross-border cattle raid. This summer, the Ugandan military was accused of using attack helicopters against Kenyan herdsmen attempting to graze their stock in their country.

In Kenya, experts say, the violence has become as unpredictable as the weather. Faced with the extinction of their age-old livelihood because of what appear to be permanent changes in rainfall patterns, many of the 4 million Kenyans who survive by raising livestock are embroiled in a fight with one another and with herdsmen from nearby countries for the remaining viable land.

“The situation is getting out of hand and people are starting to worry about where all this is headed,” said Mohammed Ahmed, a field officer with the British aid group ActionAid in Isiolo, where scores of people have been killed in recent months.

He and others say the violence this year has been more brutal and random than anyone can remember. Women and children have been killed, among them two women slain while collecting firewood in September.

Cattle rustling, which historically occurred after rains when herds were large, this year began for the first time in the midst of the drought, even though bandits had no pasture to keep the stolen livestock alive. In one recent attack, rustlers shot and killed several hundred animals when they realized they would be unable to escape with them.

That has led many to suspect that the motive isn’t just to profit or restock herds; it’s also to strike a death blow at the enemy.

“They want to force us to move off the land for good,” said Romana Nasur, a member of the Turkana tribe who lost 65 goats during an attack in September.

“The first step is to make us poor.”

The village of Gambella has long been a peaceful oasis thanks to a natural spring that enables year-round farming. It became a killing field in July, when scores of attackers, mostly Turkana and Samburu tribesmen, ransacked and destroyed more than 100 huts, shot holes in the water tanks and fled with several hundred animals.

The Kenya Red Cross Society said 11 people died in a nearby village during a similar attack this month.

Six people were killed during the daylong July raid and a schoolboy was shot in the leg while fleeing his classroom. Two-thirds of Gambella’s 1,500 residents, all from the Borana tribe, are too afraid to return, said Abduba Serera, a father of eight and village leader.

“They want to scare us away to take our water,” he said.

The Kenyan government has largely ignored the brewing crisis, dismissing it as the usual tribal clashes. But the drought has pushed Kenya’s cattle-raising tribes to the point where they feel they have nothing to lose, experts say.

“It’s a recipe for a major disaster,” said Choice Okoro, humanitarian affairs officer for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, noting the prevalence of AK-47s and other arms in northern Kenya. “We are seeing a militarization of their livelihood.”

Okoro said it was a mistake to assume that tensions will abate if the drought ends. “It’s different now, and it’s alarming,” she said. “It’s not going back to normal anymore.”

Sudan’s Darfur region is perhaps the best example of what can happen when Africa’s climate-related conflicts are mismanaged, exploited or left to fester. Desertification in northern Darfur over the last 50 years drove herdsmen south, pitting them against farmers. The Sudanese government is accused of exploiting the conflict by siding with the herdsmen, mostly of Arab tribes, and giving them virtual immunity to attack farmers, mostly non-Arab tribesmen.

More than 35,000 died in the fighting and at least 100,000 more died in the subsequent humanitarian crisis, according to the International Criminal Court. The U.S. has described the attacks as genocide.

Most climate-related conflicts in Africa have been localized, but experts warn that “climate wars” between neighboring countries could be on the horizon.

“If there will be any wars, they will probably be over water,” said Odingo of the climate change panel.

Potential hot spots include the Nile River, which is the source of rising tensions between Egypt, which uses most of the water, and countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia, which are fighting for bigger shares.

Likewise, a new Ethiopian dam is causing the water level to drop at Kenya’s Lake Turkana.

Odingo said he is confident that African governments will keep their heads and work together. But in Kenya, the government is accused of aggravating the violence through a series of questionable decisions.

In February, security forces raided a Samburu tribe stronghold, seizing more than 12,000 head of livestock and redistributing them to rival tribes. Government officials said they were trying to rectify previous thefts by Samburu raiders, but Samburu leaders alleged government bias. They launched retaliatory attacks.

The government has also armed the tribes, handing out more than 2,000 rifles over the last year to untrained “reservists,” tribal leaders and government officials say.

The guns were intended to help remote villages defend themselves, but elders say that the government gave preference to certain tribes and that the weapons are being used in offensive attacks.

“The government is not being neutral,” said Lawrence Ewoi, a Turkana leader. He said his tribe received only five of the 300 rifles recently distributed in Isiolo. “Now the other tribe is using the guns against us.”

Mohamed Abdi Kuti, a Kenyan parliament member from the Borana tribe, denied that his tribesmen got most of the weapons around Isiolo, but he agreed that the spread of small arms was dangerous.

“There is a plan to recall all the guns because it’s getting out of hand,” he said.

But experts predict that few will heed the disarmament call.

Kuti said climate change had made tribes more susceptible to political manipulation.

“Because of the drought, people are desperate and they’re willing to do anything,” he said.

“It’s easy to thrive on people’s weaknesses.”


One in a series of occasional articles about the effects of climate change on people around the world.