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Q&A: Behind our report on climate and conflict in Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands

5 June 2024 Q&A: Behind our report on climate and conflict in Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands

Elizabeth Atieno, Project Manager for Saferworld Kenya, and the lead researcher behind our report "It is a grey area that should be green": Towards more inclusive and conflict-sensitive natural resource management in Kenya, tells us about climate and conflict in Kenya's arid and semi-arid lands.

How is climate change leading to conflict? What are other causes of conflict in the area?

The Horn of Africa, including northern Kenya, is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years.

In the three counties we looked at, communities are heavily reliant on pastoralism, which requires natural resources such as land and water for their livelihoods and well-being. This makes them especially vulnerable to a hotter and drier climate, more unpredictable rainfall, and more extreme weather events. Reduced land productivity and livestock deaths lead to food insecurity and poverty, further exposing people to climate shocks – a vicious cycle of resource scarcity, competition and conflict.

Another pathway by which climate change precipitates conflict is through migration. When adverse climate events directly or indirectly force communities to migrate, it increases pressure on resources at the destination, creating greater competition – and potential conflict.

And when governments do take action, they often fail to take account of existing intercommunity relations and resources, meaning that the benefits and burdens of climate interventions may not be equitably shared between communities. This too can lead to conflict.

What was the aim of the research?

We wanted to see how climate change and conflict affect different groups in three counties of northern Kenya, exploring how these interact with natural resource management systems and peace infrastructure. It is a synthesis of four research studies: gender-sensitive conflict analysis, policy review of Natural Resource Management (NRM) policies, information ecosystem, and peace infrastructure assessment undertaken by Saferworld in 2022–23, carried out as part of an ongoing project on the management of natural resources in Kenya.

Why were the particular counties selected for the research?

Turkana, West Pokot, and Elgeyo Marakwet form part of Kenya’s arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL). These counties have firsthand experience of how climate change leads to conflicts over access to water and pasture – which is why they have been the focus of the Integrated Management of Natural Resources for Resilience in Kenya’s Arid and Semi-arid Lands (IMARA) project.

What are the effects of climate change in Kenya (and in the three counties)?

The three counties, and Kenya more generally, have witnessed harsher and more frequent droughts, leading to desertification; more unpredictable rainfall patterns, with more intense and frequent downpours causing flash floods; a reduction in plant and animal productivity; and an increase in pests and the diseases they bring. These impacts contribute to resource scarcity and environmental stress, decreasing the quantity and quality of the pasture and other natural resources critical to sustaining the pastoralist way of life. This, in turn, changes existing patterns of transhumance (the seasonal pastoral movement of livestock) and may lead to forced migration in search of pasture and water. Coupled with existing social relations, tensions over overlapping claims and interests over boundaries and other resources, and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons this worsens disputes and further weakens access to resources.

How can management of natural resources be improved to counteract the negative effects of climate change?

The research shows that effective natural resource governance is critical to ensuring equitable and sustainable management of resources in Kenya's ASALs and building resilience against climate and conflict shocks. But these initiatives should be informed by community-level natural resource management systems and intercommunity relations and dynamics.

Governments and development partners should also invest in pastoralist communities' human development – education, health and social safety nets – especially in strengthening their literacy, skills and entrepreneurial capacity. They should also promote alternative livelihoods so that pastoralists don’t have to turn to environmentally harmful practices like deforestation and charcoal burning.

What are the gendered impacts of conflict and climate change?

Violence, conflict and climate-induced degradation of natural resources impact different societal groups in various ways. Women are generally the most adversely affected due to the patriarchal nature of society, which excludes them from economic and political decision-making, including over the management of natural resources. Women bear the responsibility of caregiving for children and managing the household, and the impacts of conflict and climate increase these responsibilities. These extra responsibilities may overburden women and expose them to even more insecurity and violence.

Other consequences of conflict and insecurity – such as curfews, restrictions of movement, arrests, injuries and deaths of young men – may also negatively affect a household's ability to support itself. And when economic necessity leads women to break gender norms (for example, seeking work outside the home), their husbands can feel disempowered, putting women at greater risk of gender-based violence.

How are young people affected?

Many of those interviewed for the research highlighted the impacts of conflict and insecurity on school-age children. Schools tend to close during violent conflicts in pastoralist areas, and even when they remain open, the education outcomes of children in conflict zones are consistently lower than the national average – compounding the already low levels of literacy in the counties. Cases of truancy, stress, trauma, absenteeism and dropout rates also increase as children become accustomed to staying out of school during such periods. Young boys who drop out of school are often forced to take up arms to fight for their communities. Young girls who leave school may be at increased risk of gender-based violence, exploitation and early marriage, which further complicates their opportunities for education and performance.

What recommendations does the report make?

Addressing these challenges requires reforming Kenya's natural resource management policies, structures, and systems to ensure they become more inclusive and conflict sensitive. National and county governments should integrate gender-responsive and conflict-sensitive approaches within climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction frameworks and strategies to avert further vulnerabilities in already fragile ecosystems. On top of this, the national government should enable stronger policy coordination and linkages between central and county authorities, and should streamline functions related to natural resource management.

The national government should harmonise traditional and modern systems for managing natural resources. Community governance structures and mechanisms should be incorporated into formal frameworks and strategies, while ensuring that women’s voices are included in decision-making processes.

The government and development partners should increase women's access to assets and resources for economic development, enabling them to contribute to broader community development and potentially lead to a stronger voice in communal decision-making. Such investments should promote women's socio-economic empowerment and ensure they benefit equally. Women should be consulted about the livelihood options they would prioritise. This investment could include funds for women to start small businesses, as a way of diversifying livelihoods and supporting women to participate in the economy. Skills training should include values-based components to address entrenched social attitudes and norms that have traditionally inhibited women’s participation and led to their marginalisation.

Traditional dispute resolution and reconciliation mechanisms can provide a valuable basis for addressing intra- and inter-ethnic conflicts. Alongside challenging harmful traditional norms like female genital mutilation and child marriages, progressive cultural norms that foster cohesion should be revived and integrated into formal legal and institutional frameworks and enforcement mechanisms, including at the county level and in national peace and security frameworks. The government, CSOs and religious institutions should coordinate with community leaders who apply traditional approaches to peacebuilding, and support such initiatives.

Find the report and summary briefing here.

Read more about our work in Kenya.

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