The current drought in northern Kenya has deep roots in the current practices of pastoralists that need to be addressed, says conservationist David Western.
Failed rains have tipped the balance from poverty to starvation for 12 million in the Horn of Africa. But they don't explain the depth of the tragedy, any more than the growing threat of climate change explains the recent decades of rangeland deterioration.
Early warning systems have improved greatly since the Sahelian disaster of the 1970s. Several agencies, including the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), predicted severe drought in 2011.
But proxy measures don't predict the depth of droughts. In contrast, data we've collected in southern Kenya over the past four decades with community resource assessors not only show the necessity of monitoring pasture on the ground, but also point to the causes of worsening droughts.
Such data also show that a successful transition from faltering subsistence economies to self-sustaining development depends on addressing the human causes of the tragedy.
Pasture in Kenya has declined steadily since the 1980s, and has recovered more slowly with each successive drought as pressures on land have grown. Livestock cycles now determine pasture abundance and the depth of drought far better than rainfall.
Traditional pastures set aside for periods of drought were exhausted by years of compressed grazing long before the rains failed in 2009, with the result that pasture shortages have grown more common and last longer, despite no drop in rainfall.
As a result, Kenya's rangelands were abandoned as herders dispersed to the highlands and into neighbouring states in search of forage. Two-thirds of their livestock died in the process, yet this drew little attention in the media or from politicians.
Droughts are now spreading faster and persisting longer as herders move farther in search of pasture, and social bonds and networks break down. Pastures are recovering slower as herders and speculators truck in and re-stock herds with animals from elsewhere.
Traditional grazing practices in the rangelands demonstrate the adaptability of pastoralism, and gives pointers to how the problems in the rangelands can be addressed.
Pastoralism is an efficient way of using land in arid regions. Like wildlife herds, herders get larger milk yields and higher rates of calf survival by migrating to the greenest pastures and using drought reserves during harsh times.
Seasonal livestock movements give pastures time to recover, enabling them to support large herds and a high human population in dry regions. Wide social networks, as well as close reciprocal ties among neighbours and neighbouring clans, insulate the individual herder against bad times.
All this allows herders to spread their risk and restock their herds faster than a solitary rancher in fenced rangelands, while information about the state of pasture collected by Lale'enok scouts, who collect information vital to success, helps communities make collective decisions on herd management.
So why is there a now crisis in eastern Africa?
The capacity of pastoral economies has been overwhelmed by a ten-fold rise in pastoral population over the last century. Per capita livestock holdings have shrunk, and pastoralist lands and water resources have been annexed for parks, farms and towns. Shrinking lands, restricted movements and persistent grazing are weakening grass growth.
In short, the environmental problems faced by the pastoral lands are systemic.
But 2011 should not have been the tragedy it is: a press release by the Kenya Meteorological Department, for example, shows that four of six stations in northern Kenya had higher rainfall deficits in the 1980s and 1990s than in the last two years.
The current tragedy stems from the remoteness and marginalisation of the northern pastoralists, as well as the effects of civil war, banditry, soaring food prices, mismanagement of national grain reserves and political failure.
Foundations for development
There are no quick fixes for these drought-prone areas. The main priority is to get food and health care to the starving millions. But beyond emergency relief, we must lay the foundations of sustainable development in the marginal lands.
Development will falter unless built on two pillars. First, the land and resource rights of marginalised pastoralists that were usurped by governments must be restored. Property rights will give back to pastoralists the security of tenure needed to conserve resources against outsiders, to counter droughts, to invest in the land and to leverage capital inputs for development.
Pastoralists in southern Kenya who have been granted such rights are developing fast, and famine has receded in this region, despite severe droughts.
Second, the institutions and governance that underpin development must be based on common interests. The land-owners associations that have sprung up in Kenya over the last decade show how locally-adapted, self-assembling governance can promote development.
These associations have re-established grass banks and seasonal grazing regimes, conservancies, ecotourism, cattle associations, enterprise groups, community scouts, and resources assessors, as well as Lale'enok information centres that gather and deploy information about development opportunities.
Pastoralists are also benefitting from modern technology. For example, cell phones link up community members, and provide both market information and mobile banking facilities. The landowner associations have now come together as the Kenya Rangeland Coalition to mobilise community conservation development initiatives.
If these two pillars of development are built on strong reciprocal ties, mutual interests and the skill of local communities in governing their own resources, famine will recede, the economic transition will be self-sustaining, and climate change will become more manageable.
David Western is Chairman of the African Conservation Centre, in Nairobi, Kenya.