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Prolonged dry spell leaves trail of pain in northern rangelands

The Aberdare Range often knocks out visitors with its enchanting, panoramic natural beauty. At an elevation of about 3,500 metres above sea level, torrential waterfalls plunge into yawning ravines from so high one may think they are heavenly taps.

The range stretching through several counties has, for centuries, quenched the thirst of generations of people. But this beauty and natural taps should not be taken at face value.

From Laikipia, Nyandarua, Samburu and Isiolo counties, the 160 kilometre long Aberdares and its waters have been the glue with which communities connect to one another. Towns and villages drink from these ‘taps’, which nourish people and their livestock.

But is this beauty the very veil that is preventing us from seeing something deeper? When rivers flow from this range, people are calm, sometimes playing flutes as they herd their livestock. When they dry up, like now, people carry guns ready to kill for water or invade ranches for pasture. Why?

The answer could be in Kenyan journalist John-Allan Namu’s three-part documentary produced by the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications.

CONCERVATION SERIES

Part of Giving Nature a Voice conservation series, this film, which airs on NTV tonight, traces what the dried Ewaso Ng’iro River in Samburu has left in its sandy wake.

The tale of livestock keepers in the northern counties of Samburu, Isiolo and Turkana often revolves around guns, raids and other short stories.

It is their culture, which, though condemned for years, has refused to die. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) says 310 people were killed in inter-tribal clashes in this region in 2015.

At Archer’s Post, Samburu’s second-largest town of about 6,000 people, the veil on the conflict is obvious. Most men here are armed, although they hide their weapons because they are not sure of the visitors’ intentions.

Trade is booming and all communities — Borana, Turkana and Samburu — buy and sell cattle, goats and camels on a calm market day. Today is a good day for a sale because grass and water can still be found and livestock can fetch a good price. But signs are, this boom may not last long.

“We are running short of grass earlier than we usually do,” Ms Nalpareno Salenyi says in the documentary, titled The End of a River. “And we are competing with those with many animals.

BLOODY TIMES

“The way I see it, it will be tough.”

The mother of four narrates in Kiswahili heavy with a Samburu accent the vicious cycle of good times, then bad, bloody times and back to good times.
“We fight every year,” adds Ms Salenyi. “It is every year.”

To reach Ms Salenyi’s home, herder Lotiriman Letwoo took the film crew through the tan, dry landscape from the mouth of Ewaso Ng’iro deep into the interior, where herdsmen watched over their animals.

The river flows down from the highlands in the south, north through the dry plains, nourishing livestock keepers in this sparsely populated arid region.

It flows on, feeding into the Lorian Swamp, making it a natural grass bank for the Samburu, Borana, Somali and Turkana peoples, before it turns east and then southest into Somalia.

RIVER DRIES UP

But in 2017, you learn what happens when your main river dries up. People must rise up early to search for water and grass. Or they will miss them and probably fight and lose. Ms Salenyi’s husband left her to care for the children. But she laments that he left a month earlier than usual, perhaps indicating the changing climate.

The northern rangelands are getting drier. The 21,000-square-kilometre Samburu is becoming drier by the day with 40 per cent already a desert.
Go for each other

A combination of climate change and overgrazing has decimated the vast landscape, making survival a constant struggle. Here, Samburu, Borana, Pokot and Turkana morana (warriors) go for each other when water or pasture is in contest.

Mr Lotiriman and his friends must drive their livestock to wherever these are. And that means deeper, sometimes into someone else’s territory.

BORANA TERRITORY
“When we go up to Kom, it will be a struggle against the Borana and other herdsmen,” says Mr Lotiriman.

It has often been this way: Samburu herdsmen move up north when it gets drier, into Borana territory. Hydrologist Sean Avery has studied Kenya’s water systems since 1979. He says this is influenced by desire for water.

“When you look at the basin, the Samburu have always moved to these areas during drought,” says Dr Avery. “The population growth rate in the dry lands is much higher than in other areas….they are being put under disproportionate pressure.”

Since last October and this month, Kenya Meteorological Department says, the country will experience the worst drought in 10 years due to depressed rainfall. Yet, just a year ago, this was one of the wettest periods in a decade; we were in the middle of El Niño.

This see-saw in weather patterns brings with it loss, often as a result of deadly fights. But the leader of these morans thinks sometimes the power of diplomacy can calm tensions. The problem though is that the drought is lasting longer, meaning that the little available in Borana country will go too.

Part 1 of ‘The End of a River’ will air on NTV at 10pm on Wednesday.

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