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Years of Drought Means End to Way of Life in Central Kenya

What once were emaciated, dehydrated cattle are now rotting corpses, victims of one of the worst droughts in the Garba Tulla area of Isiolo South

The rains are finally coming back to Kenya, but drought still persists in the central region of Isiolo South. There, many pastoralists have had to give up their way of life.

It looks like a war zone. What once were emaciated, dehydrated cattle are now rotting corpses, victims of one of the worst droughts in the Garba Tulla area of Isiolo South.

In this part of Kenya, cattle are what put food on the table. When they are gone, so is a family's income.

Abdia Huka, 15, knows this only too well. She and her family now survive on food rations.

"We used to have 50 sheep and goats," she said. "Now, none of them are alive. We used to have 40 cows, 10 are remaining. We have a big problem with water and food."

Pastoralism has been a way of life in Isiolo South for centuries.

For four consecutive years, seasonal rains have been much less than expected or have even failed altogether.

Liban Mohamed is regional manager of the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) Upper Eastern office. He says the past year has been particularly devastating for the area's water supply.

"In Garba Tulla and Isiolo alone, we have got five major rivers that are usually supplying water to the community," he noted. "For the first time in life, which I have also experienced, this year four out of five rivers have completely dried up. Imagine, with four rivers dried up, all the pans dried up, all the pastures gone, what we have seen is that this time the severity is more compared to the previous one."

Boreholes and water points are few and far between. People often walk long distances to get water.

Mohamed says an average household in the Garba Tulla area uses 20 liters of water within a three-day period. That works out to almost seven liters of water each day for drinking, cooking, and cleaning that as many as 10 people have to share. As a result, diseases such as cholera have been on the rise in the past year.

Mohamed estimates that at least 30 percent of livestock in the Garba Tulla area have died from lack of water and pasture. He says that up to 80 percent of people in one village in the area are receiving food relief. And that means pastoralism is becoming less and less viable as a way of life.

Galgalo Jarso is a waiter at the Al-Hudah restaurant in Garba Tulla town. He was a pastoralist until all of his 40 animals died in a previous drought.

"The life of pastoralists has to come to an end," he noted. "All of your investment money can go in just one season. You work hard - after one season it all disappears. Those people who are still pastoralists had better sell all of their animals and live in town."

Jarso admits that he is one of the lucky ones.

"I have a friend who stopped pastoralism one year ago after his 30 animals died," he added. "He came to town. He comes to my place to sleep. I sometimes give him food. When he does not get anything from me, he goes to sleep hungry."

Area residents are calling on the Kenyan government to help those who want to remain pastoralists. Abdul Bahar Ali is Member of Parliament for Isiolo South. He explains how he thinks government and donors should help his constituents.

"The government and other players in development, the partner agencies, can put together some consolidated fund, some money somewhere, which can be used," he said. "[This money] can be used every time the drought is with us. The cyclical nature of the drought is such that it comes after every four years."

He urges the government to dig boreholes and to purchase livestock from area pastoralists so that they do not lose income if their livestock die.