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Coping mechanisms to face a devastating drought

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Climate change is a reality in the Millennium Village of Dertu and Northern Kenya. The region has been receiving only showers since November/December 2006, a situation that has lead to deteriorating pasture and water over time in this nomadic based area. After the failure of the April/May 2009 rains, the intensity of the drought started to bite and nomadic communities to panic. Following tradition, most of the dry camels and cattle migrated to wetter zones deep in Somalia (along the coastal strip) and to the Ethiopian Highlands. Unfortunately, sheep, goats, milking cows, camel dams, and donkeys had to remain within the region. Soon the distance to pasture and water increased as open water surfaces dried up and pastures changed from brown to black due to intensity of the heat. It is estimated that over 30% of the goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys that remained within Dertu and surrounding villages were lost. Even camels, the most drought tolerant animals, became a victim. Regrettably, the few thousands of hay bales locally made and pods stored by the community in early 2007 were exhausted by September 2008.

As a result, calves, kids and lambs were slaughtered, rare evergreen trees lopped and livestock migrated to far and isolated pastures as a traditional coping mechanism. As the animals became weak, opportunistic diseases started to take toll on livestock. This was further aggravated by the availability of saline water from the few reliable boreholes. Furthermore, the price of animals dropped by more than 70% of the usual market prices. Consequently, malnutrition of the vulnerable members of the community (under fives, pregnant and lactating mothers and the old) became evident and the weak members of the pastoral households moved to settlements hoping to find food, water and health aid from governments and partners.

Even the usually shy wild animals were not spared and started to trickle to rural towns and settlements, and major roads for survival. Grazers such as warthogs and birds were forced to eat dead animals. There were even reports of warthogs eating live goats and sheep and their own young ones.

The governments and communities within the region asked for outside help in form of food aid, medical attention and water tankering. But due to the intensity of the drought, the widespread nature of the problem and commitments elsewhere, support from development partners was not enough. Alternatively, at the local level, governments mobilized the meager resources they had and research and development projects such the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) — Dertu were forced to respond to the disaster.
MVP — Dertu, supported by the Ministry of Livestock, commenced its activity in July 2009 through mass treatment and vaccination of livestock within the Millennium Village and neighboring villages. A total of about 30,000 heads of livestock were treated/vaccinated to prepare them to overcome the expected drought. Moreover, the project has been executing monthly mobile integrated health outreach services and providing essential drugs to the Dertu clinic.
In August 2009, the project conducted drought assessment and confirmed that the drought is eating in to the successes made in the past three years. With support from The MDG Centre, East and Southern Africa, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Millennium Promise and other partners the project decided to take urgent and appropriate action. Immediately, the project and the Millennium Village Advisory Committee (a community structure) formed a local disaster response committee for Dertu and decided to identify eight major nomadic drought response sites deep in the hinterland where support in form of water, human medicine, livestock drugs and animal feeds were to be delivered to the vulnerable and their weak livestock. Specifically the following activities were executed at the disaster response sites:

Water tankering — hired two trucks each transporting an average of 24,000 litres per day to at least two to three pastoral sites/day in 12 sites. We also got support from religious leaders & Constituency Development Fund (CDF), a government fund managed by local parliamentarians.
Diesel to boreholes: a total of 3,200 liters delivered
A borehole genset was serviced
A new borehole drilled and equipped with the support of the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation (NWCPC) and Arid Lands
Procured seven 6,000 liters water tanks plus two others each 3,000 liters
Human nutrition – skimmed milk, oil, sifted maize meal, minor illness treatment
Referrals of serious cases to Dertu Clinic and Garissa Provincial Hospital
Livestock feeds in form of maize husks, Acacia tortilis pods, Livestock drugs and treatment — dewormers, multi-vitamins, antibiotics, acaricides, anti-protozoa

Lessons learnt:
Emergency response kit should always be an integral part of any research and development activity within the arid and pastoral land use system. It is the moral responsibility of the international community to contribute to the kit in order to overcome the impact of climate change.
There is need to formalize and empower cross border communal grazing and keep intact traditional dry season migration corridors across border.

Sensitization and awareness creation to destocking livestock is very crucial in this environment.
Hay baling and storage, and conservation of high value trees and shrubs should be a priority.
Human and veterinary disease surveillance, treatment/vaccination, and local early warning systems have to be always in place.

There is need to support more permanent water sources (to be used only in dry seasons by pastoralists) placed appropriately and run by community based institutions in order to cut the cost of water tankering.

Dr. Ahmed Mohamed is the Team Leader and Science Coordinator for the Dertu Millennium Village. He’s based in Garissa, Kenya.

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