Climate change in Kenya is changing women's lives

Climate change and its impacts have drastically affected the lives of rural women pastoralists in Kenya.

Ann Kobia Makena

UNDER a swiftly shifting landscape in rural Kenya, climate change and its impacts have drastically changed numerous lives in the African nation, especially for rural pastoralists who depend almost exclusively on rainfall and adequate water supplies. Water in local ecosystems has been shifting as changes in local rivers, lakes and waterholes have been the deciding factor for numerous families who have moved away from home areas due to extreme drought.

With multi-dimensional roles as mothers, providers and often heads of household, women in rural areas of Kenya are also most often the managers of local on-the-ground natural resources. This is especially true for Kenya's women farmers because of their reliance on nature and nature-based income sources. Women farmers in rural Kenya often hold the key to food security in the region.

The majority of the world's small-scale farmers are women. In fact women produce most of the world's food.

But climate change has made the risky business of farming all the more difficult. More frequent crop failures mean women work harder and families eat less.

'Climate change threatens to lock poor people and women in particular in a vicious cycle of poverty,' said Founder and Director of Kenya Climate Justice Women Champions Cecilia Kibe in a one-on-one interview with WNN -Women News Network.

As rural family incomes reach some of the lowest levels ever in Kenya, husbands have been leaving their homes to seek work in urban areas. Those left behind are women and children.

Often left alone to deal with climate-based conditions, women and children are also the first in line to become the victims of climate unpredictability. Drought and flash floods, which have become part of the national landscape, have caused critical changes in the lives of those most vulnerable.

'Droughts cause more death and displacement than cyclones, floods and earthquakes combined, making them the world's most destructive natural hazard. They are expected to increase in frequency, area and intensity due to climate change. There is therefore an urgent need for coordinated drought and proactive policies,' said Michel Jarraud of the World Meteorological Organisation during the High-Level Meeting on National Drought Policy organised by the United Nations in Geneva in March.

Instability in rainfall has been causing regional concern as increasing expansion of deserts throughout the African continent continues. This issue was at the heart of the March UN High-Level Meeting. But how are the women farmers and pastoralists of Kenya dealing directly with climate changes on the ground?

'Women are at the centre of [the] climate change challenge; they have been disproportionately affected as victims,' outlines Kibe.

'It is more difficult for grassroots women who find themselves managing families in very strenuous circumstances where traditional livelihoods are under threat and where men are often absent,' Kibe adds.

Glaring impacts

Agriculture is the main economic activity in Kitui County in the eastern region of Kenya. With its arid and semi-arid ecological zones, climate impacts are glaring and threatening the survival of small-scale farmers and agri-pastoralists, the majority of whom are women.

A diverse array of impacts has been hitting the Kenyan region including increasing water scarcity, erratic and unreliable rainfall, more frequent and severe droughts and disappearance of animal and plant species.

As women farmers throughout Kenya try to survive, their small-scale agribusinesses growing maize, peas, beans and cow pea crops are being greatly impacted. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), corn production for Kenya is down 100,000 metric tons this year over the previous year's production, although it is still above the five-year average.

'The estimated decrease in production is based on several factors including delayed planting due to the late onset of Kenya's 2012 rainy season and poor availability of fertiliser and seed, higher than average precipitation in April and May, and an outbreak of Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) disease,' says the USDA as indications that rainfall changes are causing alterations in food production become apparent.

Other women farmers raise chicken and zebu cattle. Some women in Kitui County have livelihoods involving work that directly serves the community, including fibre-sisal farming, gathering and selling of water and/or selling of wood and charcoal.

Because of their reliance on nature-based income sources, rural women in Kenya are often the ones who know first, before anyone else, how climate change is affecting their communities. Uniting and strengthening grassroots women to get involved in responding to climate change is a core focus of Cecilia Kibe and the Kenya Climate Justice Women Champions.

Too often Kenyan women, and women throughout the continent of Africa, who have closely witnessed climate patterns for decades are 'bypassed' as global scientific experts are given new and increasing resources to study and discuss climate change impacts worldwide. There is no doubt today that data and assessment are important factors in the ever-changing field of climate-watch technologies but advocates ask, 'Where are the women?'

'Women produce between 60% and 80% of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world's food production, yet their key role as food producers and providers, and their critical contribution to household food security, is only recently becoming recognised,' says the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Affected lives

Jennifer, who is a mother of three and small-scale farmer from a region east of Nairobi, explains the impacts of climate change that have become the greatest challenge to her. Unpredictability with drought is a growing and major problem that is affecting her personally.

'During the drought season it's even worse because the women have to walk for very long distances to look for water, food and even firewood, the hardships [are] really scarring the women's lives ... they hardly have good time to supervise the growing infants and do other family chores in comfort,' outlines Jennifer.

'What's more, long remote treks often put women at a greater risk of violence. Most of the regions that lack water put women through long-distance walks… in their treks they sometimes experience violence and even emotional disturbance because they don't know what will happen next,' Jennifer continues.

Climate change often makes women's long workday even longer. When unpredictable rainfall makes food, fuel and water scarce, women have to walk longer and farther to collect what they need for their families. The increasing scale of scarcity of resources has already led to wars being fought over access to water and arable land. And with conflict, too often there is a surge in violence against women.

Adequate nutrition for women in a context of years of plant and animal loss due to drought conditions has also been an issue that can affect infants.

'I have never done exclusive breastfeeding; however it's not my fault because it would be my joy to see my child enjoy enough breast milk because I know it will give protection, and good health, however I always experience low production of milk,' says Mbinya, who lives in Kauwi, which is located in the Kabati district in Kitui County. 'The little food I get which is not even balanced can never be enough for me and my family.'

Climate instability with episodes of extended droughts and flash flooding can have long-term impacts on the health of both mothers and children as food nutrition and availability become unreliable.

Robert Kithuku, a project officer with the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, is currently working on a project on climate change and reproductive health in women. In his research he has found that women in Emohaya, which is in the Western Province of Kenya, have begun now to adapt to the challenges that climate change has brought.

'Women have the knowledge and skills to adapt to climate change and to find a sustainable path out of poverty,' says Kithuku. 'They need the power, tools and resources to turn this knowledge into solutions.'


As the issues surrounding climate instability grow in importance, Annabell Waititu,a founder member of the Institute of Environment and Water Management (IEWM) based in Nairobi, feels that climate change is no longer just an environmental issue.

'The best way to help women [respond to] climate change is by empowering them,' outlines Waititu. 'The impacts of climate change will definitely affect the MDGs [UN Millennium Development Goals] and to deal with it gender equality must be addressed,' she adds.

It seems the key to surviving harsh conditions is the ability to adapt. As hardship increases, forcing women and their daughters to go further and further to search for wood for heat and cooking as well as water, numerous areas that are suffering from deforestation and desertification may take decades to regenerate.

'Climate change is here to stay for a while as populations continue to grow.  We need  to  balance  growth of  population  and  analyse  its  negative impacts to the climate,' added Waititu.

Leading to increased illness and disease, changes in rainfall patterns have affected women who are also most often the primary caregivers for the sick. Climate change has increased the incidence of both floods and droughts, contributing to outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera which have also caused loss of life especially for women and children. It has also increased the spread of malaria- and dengue-carrying mosquitoes, which has caused displacement for some. Water-related diseases alone kill over two million people every year, most of them women and children.

'Governments are doing little while their citizens suffer,' says Cecilia Kibe.'It is a real threat to people's lives and it should be stopped in its tracks. Women's issues have always been ignored.'

Indigenous women throughout Africa bear a triple burden despite decades of demands for international action on the environment. Drought, flooding, erratic temperatures and extinction of plants and animals weaken not just the planet but also an indigenous woman's identity, well-being and way of life.

'Addressing climate change is not easy. It will take massive political will and it will cost money. That is why we need an accountable institutional mechanism and equitable governance structures to channel resources efficiently and ensure responsibility, transparency and accountability,' said Kenya's star environmentalist Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, at the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, before her untimely death less than two years later on 25 September 2011 at the age of 71.                            

This story originally appeared on WNN - Women News Network ( WNN reporter Ann Kobia Makena is an administrative officer with the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA).

*Third World Resurgence No. 274, June 2013, pp 37-39