Flash floods broke devastating drought, but not drought cycle menacing wildlife & livestock
NAIROBI, Kenya––Just two inches of rain over two days, about what Seattle gets on average in just two weeks, in mid-March 2018 triggered flash floods killing at least 15 Kenyans, marooning six tented camps for wildlife tourists in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, wreaking havoc in low-lying suburbs of Nairobi, the national capital, and temporarily severing the main roads to Tanzania.
The flash floods hit only hours after New York Times writer Somini Sangupta explained––as ANIMALS 24-7 often has––that Kenya and indeed the entire Horn of Africa region no longer receives rain enough to sustain animal agriculture.
Floods confirm effects of global warming
Flash floods are not a contradiction but rather a confirmation of permanent ecological change. Flash flooding occurs because when long-delayed rains fall on sun-baked soil, lacking lush vegetation to help soak up the water, the water runs off through any channel it can find. Paved roads temporarily become canals. Only hours or days afterward the water is gone. The habitat reverts to desert.
The flash flooding broke a dry spell that had much of the Kenyan wildlife tourism sector in a panic.
“Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and the adjoining game-controlled areas have only one year-round river, the Mara,” explained George Sayagie, Narok County correspondent for The Nation, of Nairobi, on March 4, 2018.
Herding drove deforestation
“However, the drought that has continued ravaging various parts of the country now threatens wildlife in the world-famous parks as the Mara River is on the verge of drying up.
“The destruction of the Mau Forest, the source of the river, has been blamed for the current situation,” noted Sayagie, describing the gradual occupation of the formerly forested hill country by pastoralists and ranchers that occurred between 1973 and 2008, when the Kenyan government began trying to reclaim and restore the habitat.
“The drying up of the river spells doom for tourism prospects at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve,” Sayagie wrote. “A spot check of the river reveals that crocodiles and hippos are dying. Wildebeests and zebras, among other wild animals, have been crossing the dry river beds, heading to Tanzania to seek greener pastures. In some parts of the river is now just a small channel. Crocodiles and hippos are competing for the pools of water that remain.”
Region favors migratory wildlife
The Horn of Africa can still sustain the rich regional wildlife ecology that evolved to withstand even centuries of draught, favoring migratory hooved species and predators who follow the hooved species, seldom lingering more than a few days at any one oasis.
Elephants may thrive by trekking many miles at a time between water holes. Crocodiles and hippos, as Sayagie described, can hold on only by zealously guarding their river refuges, occurring in only a few parts of the region, where large drainage basins––such as the Mau Forest–– feed into relatively small natural sinks.
Humans can survive and even prosper in the Horn of Africa, by making sparing use of pumped well water, growing drought-resistant crops, relying on solar-generated electricity and attracting wildlife tourists to fund maintenance of roads, schools, hospitals, and airports.
No future for livestock
But neither the traditional semi-nomadic pastoralist culture, nor the beef and dairy ranching industries introduced by 20th century colonialists, have any realistic hope of a prosperous future in the age of global warming.
Both livestock-centered ways of life depend on putting tens of thousands of cattle, sheep, and goats out on land that can now and for the foreseeable future feed only dozens.
The “zero grazing” approach sold to pastoralists by livestock gift charities such as Heifer International and the intensive confinement approach adopted from the U.S. and Europe by bigtime commercial agribusiness, which is “zero grazing” on a vastly larger scale, reduce the soil erosion that typically accompanies drought, but depend on farmers being able to harvest and transport sufficient fodder to keep animals fed who cannot forage for themselves.
“Measurably drier and hotter”
Maintaining consistent year-round fodder production in turn depends upon having consistent access to water. Consistent access to water is precisely what neither Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, much of Sudan, and South Sudan now have, or can expect to have within the 21st century, no matter how many wells are drilled and dams built to contain occasional flash flooding.
Observed Somini Sengupta in her New York Times report, “Northern Kenya — like its arid neighbors in the Horn of Africa, where [now former] Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson paid a visit, including a stop in Nairobi,” just before his 13-month tenure ended — “has become measurably drier and hotter, and scientists are finding the fingerprints of global warming. According to recent research, the region dried faster in the 20th century than at any time over the last 2,000 years. Four severe droughts have walloped the area in the last two decades, a rapid succession that has pushed millions of the world’s poorest to the edge of survival.
“More than 650,000 children under age 5 across vast stretches of Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are severely malnourished,” Sengupta continued. “The risk of famine stalks people in all three countries; at least 12 million people rely on food aid, according to the United Nations.”
Women walk seven miles a day for water
In the Turkana region of northwestern Kenya, Sengupta saw on a visit, “Water has become so scarce that fetching it, which is women’s work, means walking an average of almost seven miles every day.
“Pastoralists have walked these lands for centuries,” Sengupta wrote, but she could have written “millennia,” since archaeologists have traced the livestock herding traditions of the region far back into prehistory.
Elders, Sengupta said, “remember the droughts of the past. Animals died. People died. But then the rains came, and after four or five years of normal rains, people living here could replenish their herds. Now, the droughts are so frequent that rebuilding herds is pretty much impossible.”
ANIMALS 24-7 has repeatedly pointed this out in depth and detail.
(See Kenya crisis shows need to transition out of animal agriculture; Keeping the Horn of Africa impaled on dilemma: How rebuilding drought-stricken herds perpetuates starvation & poverty; Drought-driven land invasions hit Kenya wildlife conservancies, and commentary The untold story of the conflict in Laikipia, Kenya, by Sebastian Mwanza, media representative for the Africa Network for Animal Welfare.)
Century of evidence ignored
But––apparently hell-bent on perpetuating animal agriculture at any cost––neither the nonprofit nor the governmental international aid sectors, nor for-profit investors seem to have paid any attention to environmental and economic evidence accumulating even before Out of Africa author Karen Blixen failed at cattle ranching and coffee planting during droughts between 1914 and 1931.
Returning home to Denmark, Blixen turned to writing books romanticizing Kenya that helped stimulate decades of western-funded efforts to try to remake the equatorial nation after the images of Scandinavia, the U.S. Midwest, or––in partial concession to drought cycles––Texas.
Will Chinese influence bring change?
Now China has supplanted the U.S. and Europe as the largest source of foreign investment in Kenya. Engineers from the Chinese Communications Construction Company repaired the main road connecting Nairobi and the Maasai Mara National Reserve, after the recent flooding, in only nine hours, according to George Murage of The Nation.
China brings to Kenya a 4,000-year history of hydrological engineering to cope simultaneously with both floods and drought, beginning with the reign of the Great Yu, founder of the First Dynasty.
The Chinese government in June 2016 adopted a national plan to reduce meat consumption by 50%, to improve public health and combat global warming.
Chinese demand for pork, the meat most consumed in China, has declined in three successive fiscal years. China now has more than 50 million vegans and vegetarians, 10 times as many as the U.S., according to Xinhua, the official state news agency.
But whether Chinese influence will be enough to turn Kenya and rest of the Horn of Africa away from animal agriculture before drought-driven famine kills millions and further desertifies the landscape remains to be seen.