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January 5, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Boots-and-shovels climate change adaptation

East Kano floodplain

East Kano floodplain

With the largest polluters apparently unwilling to take the steps necessary to curb emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the rest of the world will have to learn to adapt—as they say—to the changing climate. This means, essentially, that rest of the world must change the way it lives so that the United States and China don’t have to.
 
It’s a truism in climate policy that the ones who have to adapt the most are those who can least afford it—the people in the developing world. Last month, I got a look at real-life, boots-and-shovel climate change adaptation in Kenya’s East Kano region, a poor, overcrowded and neglected corner of the country near Lake Victoria. The area is subject to vast floods part of the year, then paradoxically becomes drought-stricken for much of the rest.

About fifty kilometers from Kisumu, the East Kano plains have “intractable, alluvial soils which have very poor drainage, together with overpopulation problems and years of drought and periodic flooding,” wrote R. Millman in a 1969 article in the East African Geographical Review. The people in East Kano are overwhelmingly Luo—the same tribe from which U.S. President Barack Obama’s father comes. In fact, Obama’s grandmother still lives not far from here. The area has been neglected for a long time. This is the way Kenyan politics works. The tribe in power favors with economic largesse the areas of the country that are home to its tribal brethren. The Luo have not been in power in Kenya since its independence—at least not yet. Current Prime Minister Raila Odinga is Luo, and is the early favorite to win the presidency in 2012.

Benard Abong’o

Benard Abong'o describes mitigation measures. Some members of the village committee are behind him. The area chief is to the right.

East Kano is one of the most neglected rural sections Kenya. There were 320,000 people farming in the area according to the 1999 census. In 2003, 170,000 of them were affected by a flood. It has the highest rate of malaria in the country. But there are no signs announcing projects by any of the big NGOs, or even any of the little ones. “In the Lake Victoria basin there has been a major flood annually or twice annually since 1982, suggesting that the flood situation is worsening,” wrote four University of Nairobi professors in 1993. Flooding since ’93 has kept pace with this assessment, neatly corresponding to the rising temperatures on the charts in the AR4 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
 
Correlation, as the scientists will hasten to tell you, is not causation. Nonetheless, “Current climate variability is believed to be having a significant influence on the frequency and magnitude of climatic related disasters like floods and droughts. Climatic related disasters constitute over 70 percent of all disasters in Kenya,” wrote Brian Otiende in 2009 in a study of the Kano region.

Benard Abong’o, a professor at the Great Lakes University of Kisumu, is a native of the area who has, with the enthusiastic assistance of the local chief, helped organize 14 communities in the area to begin their adaptation to climate change. These efforts are small, but effective. But they also carry important lessons about the future of climate change adaptation in the developing world. At a meeting on community based disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in early December, we visited professor Abong’o’s projects.

The Kano plains are broad, flat, sweeping picturesquely from the higher lands to the east into a wide bay of Lake Victoria on the west. They are so broad, in fact, that it is hard to believe that enough water can be generated to flood them. “Don’t be fooled,” said a Kenya Red Cross staffer who was with us, “My people were working in water up to their waists here.”

Erosion control

Plants struggle to root along the river, for erosion control

Abong’o and the district chief—the main local administrative official—have organized fourteen villages in the area to work together to try to deal with the twin scourges of flood and drought. They’ve formed an action committee consisting of local men and women representatives in about equal proportion, a minor revolution in its own right. They’ve undertaken two initiatives.
 
First, They are stabilizing the river banks by planting trees and sisal to control erosion. Our visiting group of about 20 helped pile stones around the young plants to stabilize them. I’ve covered climate change since about 2003, but this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned piling stones around trees as a palliative to higher temperatures. Overtopping of the banks can occur at fairly low discharges in some sections of the rivers, most frequently in last eight to 12 kilometers from Lake Victoria.

Water pan

A water pan, dug by hand in East Kano

The other major effort has been to dig water pans to capture waters from floods for use later in the season when the rains are gone. Some of these were dug by hand by the local people. It’s a little surprising that no NGOs are in evidence because the commitment by the local people is clearly there.
The Kano experience is an example of how people in poor regions are trying to adapt to climate change. The efforts they’re making are low-tech, fairly simple and relatively inexpensive.
 
Inexpensive, but not free. When we settled into a meeting with the adaptation committee in the chief’s office, one of the first things we did was pass the hat, with the people from our group contributing cash to help with the committee’s costs. We collected about Ksh 4,000 (about $50). One of the women on the committee told us that people were willing to do the work, but they needed something to eat when they did it. What money can be raised is usually used to buy food for the workers, perhaps to provide them with a little cash to take home at the end of the day to compensate them for missing work on the shamba. Per capita income in Kenya in 2008 was about $780 a year.

Kenya Meteorological Service pledged at the meeting to put up a meteorological station and low power radio station to provide warning, along with climate, weather, and agricultural information.

All of which brought me to my major insight about climate change adaptation in the developing world. In some ways, they are ahead of the developed nations. They’ve seen a change in their weather patterns—heavier rain, more floods, accompanying long dry periods—and they are trying to act for themselves. But these people are very poor. As I shelled out my Ksh200, I realized that whatever is done has to have an immediate, tangible economic benefit to the people who are doing it. It’s all very well to hear the rhetoric about dealing with climate change to save the earth for future generations. But on the ground in the less developed world, where the shovels are, they are trying to feed the current generations.

Chief's office

Outside the chief's office, East Kano

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Linda Baker / Jan 7 2011 7:03 pm

    I enjoyed your blog very much dan. I remember a day in Casper when I was going on and on about pollution in our environment and good old May Ann Bodinski said, “poor people don’t give a shit about the quality of their food, they are just hungry.” Your blog brought that memory back to me. Also the simplicity of things people can do to make changes. It was definately worth reading!

    • Dan Whipple / Jan 7 2011 7:09 pm

      Thanks, Linda. I remember those Brookhurst arguments a little too well.

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