After five failed rainy seasons and severe drought for over two years, northern Kenya was hit by floods once the rain arrived. Communities in the region remain anxious about what climate change will mean for their future.

The number of people affected by the drought in Kenya rose from 4.46 million last year to 6.40 million, latest figures by the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show.

When the rain arrived in a deluge between March and May, after what had been the worst drought in the region in 70 years, the dried-out ground could not absorb the rain. Fields and homes were flooded as a result.

In total 5.44 million people suffer from acute food insecurity in the east African country. Marsabit county in northern Kenya remains in an emergency with 309,000 people affected, according to the OCHA.

Speaking to Agriland after her latest trip to Marsabit in June 2023, Christian Aid Ireland CEO, Rosamond Bennett said that communities went from dust to flooding in a very short space of time.

From drought to flooding

When Rosamond arrived in Marsabit in June the flooding had receded, however, houses were damaged or destroyed, and some villages and communities were totally cut off, she said.

The Christian Aid Ireland CEO described travelling over bridges that, she said, were not safe, and how communities had no way of accessing local markets.

Despite a lot more greenery in the region allowing for more livestock grazing, there are fewer animals to eat it, she said. In the entire country 2.6 million livestock have died due to the drought.

Drought affected landscape on the road leading out of Ngurnit in Laisamis, Marsabit county, northern Kenya. Source: Katie Cox/Christian Aid

Communities have now started growing maize using old seeds that would have previously been used for animal fodder. This harvest will be the first they get to feed themselves, Rosamond said.

Food insecurity has not gone away. A few rains after five seasons of drought does not change the situation,” she added.

For about a month a lot of the communities were isolated due to the floods during the rainy season between March and May. Rosamond explained that the people affected decide what support they need.

With funding from Christian Aid Ireland, large water tanks holding 10,000L could be bought and filled up with water, which communities were then able to sell locally, she said.

The organisation has also been working with people who are living with disabilities. The community decided that they need a shop which they could set up and run themselves, and some livestock, Rosamond said.

“Whenever the floods hit, people couldn’t go any further [and] sell produce, but at least some of the people locally were able to get access to that shop,” she said.

People are now looking at what they can do to conserve water, to make sure they are not isolated and cut off again in future, either because of drought or flooding, she said.

“Next rainy season, October to December time, nobody knows what that is going to bring. It is living with that uncertainty that makes life extremely difficult.

“If they plant seeds in anticipation that the rains will come and then they come as heavy as they did, then everything is washed away.

“If they don’t plant seeds and the rains come and they are soft rains, then they have missed an opportunity,” Rosamond told Agriland.

Speaking about the importance of drought-resistant seeds, she said that the organisation is trying to encourage people to diversify what they are growing which will also make it easier to sell in the market.

Rosamond said it is about working with the community and trying to figure out ways to grow crops that will adapt to their environment. However, the biggest issue is that it is hard to know how the environment will change due to climate change.

In self-help groups people who are able to produce their own food are working with the most vulnerable. “While things are difficult for everybody, there is a real community spirit.

“It is not just every person to themselves. Even in their most difficult days they will still think of someone with a disability or someone who is a widow, someone who needs more support from them.

“I find that very uplifting to see. It would be very easy to, whenever things are not going well, just focus on yourself, but people are not doing that,” Rosamond said.

What will the future look like?

Speaking about the nervousness and the anxiety felt by the communities around whether there will be future rains, Rosamond told Agriland:

“How do they collect the water now? How do they protect themselves from drought in the future? The anxiety was very real.

“The rain came but it didn’t reassure anyone, because how are we going to manage in future? Is this what our lives will be like? Five drought seasons followed by a flood season?”

A lot of the people she met with are herders who walk from one area to another to find water and pasture for their livestock. However, the organisation wants to ensure that children go to school.

“We don’t think there is a future in this way of life anymore. Children need to be educated to find another way to make a living,” Rosamond said.

One of the herders she met with during her latest visit to Marsabit county is Diboya Kombe, a 35-year-old herder and mother of three from Ngurnit, Laisamis.

Diboya Kombe pictured with CEO of Christian Aid Ireland Rosamond Bennett in Ngurnit, Laisamis, Marsabit county, northern Kenya. Source: Katie Cox/Christian Aid

Diboya received €75 a month in local currency for three months to help cope with the impact of the drought from Christian Aid’s local partner, the Pastoralist Community Initiative and Development Assistance (PACIDA), with funding from Irish Aid.

“We depend on livestock and then the drought came. It was a long drought that killed all of the livestock. There was no rain, people were hungry, there was nothing to eat.

“We have survived but we have not really caught up because all of the livestock died,” Diboya, who had 20 goats before the drought which were a source of meat, milk, and income for her family, said.

Before receiving cash support, she said there was a time when her family didn’t eat breakfast, lunch or supper. She now uses the cash to pay school fees for her son, bought a school uniform as well as three goats.

There have now been three months without rain, and it is no longer green like before, Diboya, who still lives in fear of another drought, said. “It will be the drought that kills us,” she added.

Rosamond believes that people in Ireland and the UK are beginning to realise the impacts of climate change. “We have just experienced our wettest July on record, but it hasn’t affected us in terms of being unable to eat, or our livestock has died,” she said.

Everyone needs to be focused on climate targets, she said, and it is a “fact” that developed countries like Ireland and the UK have “contributed and caused climate change”.

“We have a responsibility to not just help people adapt to climate change, but we got to pay for the damage that has been caused as a result of climate change.

“We know that we as a developed world have helped and created that,” Rosamond said.

Early this year Agriland reported about how climate change has left millions without food in northern Kenya. Click on the link below to read about how the situation has changed over the last months.