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Climate wars in Kenya’s nomadic communities


The world’s first armed conflicts due to climate change may be just beginning. In a remote and arid part of northern Kenya, the Turkana nomadic community today brandish Kalashnikovs, ready to kill in defence of their depleting water sources. The district in which they live, herding goats, cattle and camels, borders Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia. It is a landscape strewn with the carcasses of livestock following a prolonged and severe drought. With rains persistently failing to materialize, the traditional life of the Turkana stands threatened. While droughts are not a recent phenomenon, those that used to happen – and were anticipated – every decade or so have now started ravaging the land every two or three years, throwing the community’s migratory patterns into disarray.

Conflict is the most alarming symptom of climate change. Every drop of water is guarded fervently. Cattle rustling and tribal rivalry have a long history in East Africa and to some extent are an intrinsic aspect of traditional pastoralist culture. An inveterate rivalry has existed historically between the Pokot, Samburu and Turkana of Kenya, resulting in scuffles and encounters. But relatively small internal skirmishes over cattle have now become increasingly destructive and are spreading across country borders, with fatal armed warfare over diminishing water sources and grazing land.

Most weapons in the hands of the Turkana are thought to have permeated the porous borders of Somalia and Sudan. They are cheap, robust, need minimum maintenance and can be used with little training. Akadaye, who lives in the village of Nasinuono, recently bought his 13-year-old son a gun for two bulls and a few goats.

‘I had to invest in them,’ he explains, sliding his own gun down his shoulders. ‘My son has started herding cattle and these waterholes are so unsafe now.’ He pats his son’s head as the boy proudly holds the gun, which looks bigger than him. The Toposa, feared rivals from Uganda and also desperate for water, are known to cross the border to attack the Turkana. The last skirmish left three dead and several wounded, with the Toposa making off with 200 cattle.

The UN has estimated that about 400 deaths last year alone were due to conflict related to cattle and water among rival nomadic groups within Kenya. The Kenyan government’s attempts to disarm them have met with limited success. It stands accused of using disproportionate force and of failing to devise a long-term resolution based on engaging with the central issues. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report urged the government to conduct future disarmament operations in line with the provisions of the National Policy on Small Arms and Light Weapons, which calls for the underlying economic, environmental, social, cultural and political causes of gun prevalence to be addressed.

Eberhard Zeyle of the African Medical Research Foundation, who has worked tirelessly to reduce conflict and improve the general health of the Turkana, is clear as to where the fault lies. ‘The Turkana are a resilient lot. But now they need help. The world needs to wake up to the fact that actions taken in other parts of the globe directly affect the nomads’ livelihood.’

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