Mnyesi Ekuom spends a lot of his time watching the tedious activities of the Lodwar Livestock Market. His patience was honed over years spent walking his family’s goats across the parched Turkana countryside when he was a young man, searching for water and pasture. Unless he is making an emphatic point, his eyes are the most animated part of him: the creases at their corners might come from his constant, focused assessments of everyone around him, as much as from squinting against the sunlight.

The Livestock Market is a dusty, fenced-in clearing just outside the town center, near the banks of the Turkwel River. Lodwar, the county capital of Turkana, about six hundred kilometers northwest of Nairobi, is as dry and parched as the rest of the county, but young men and women from small hamlets in the countryside trek here every day hoping to sell a goat, sheep, or cow for money they can take back to their families.  I stand with Ekuom as he watches them waiting to make a sale, amid the hum of a market reeling from disaster: the crippling eighteen-month drought that, between October 2016 and March 2018, decimated the Turkana countryside.

The young men at the market are drawn to Ekuom, an elder who has survived several droughts, as if his experience might somehow take away the sting of this season. Everyone here has lost livestock—Ekuom himself has lost at least seventy-four goats, camels, and cattle—and people gather at the market not because there is much to sell, but mostly because it is what they have always done.

As these young men talk to Ekuom, they seem more than a little daunted by the future. Their conversation is primarily in Turkana, which I don’t speak, but I can catch some sentences and read their exhaustion. It’s February; the earth has been dry for more than a year and right now there’s no sign of reprieve. The men seek reassurance. But Ekuom has nothing to offer but his own fatigue. “We’ve lost everything,” he says. “There’s no rain and there’s no grass, so now we are just waiting for the goats that are left to die.”

Ekuom is a member of Kenya’s Turkana community, the majority ethnic group after whom the county is named. Their traditional homelands cover a staggering 13 percent of the surface area of the forty-seventh largest country in the world. Much of that land is arid or semi-arid, which means that in a good year, the people of Turkana see less than twenty inches of rain. In a bad year, parts of Turkana get no rain at all. But the problem isn’t just the lack of rain. Turkana County’s more reliable sources of water—boreholes, thanks to the largest underground water system in the country; seasonal rivers like the Turkwel; and Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake—all rely on rivulets that arise in neighboring Uganda or West Pokot County, which means that the water situation in Turkana County depends on rainfall in places outside it. When it fails to rain in those places, the people of Turkana have a major problem.

So they are used to taking the good years with the bad—they know that sometimes the rains simply fail. But 2017 was different. It brought what was arguably the most political drought in Kenya’s recent history.

* * *

No matter how much humans build and innovate, there is no escaping our need for fresh water. And regardless of whether a community relies on groundwater (aquifers or boreholes) or surface water (rivers, lakes, and streams), rain is an essential means of replenishing water for human consumption. When the rain doesn’t fall at the frequency or intensity we expect, our lives are imperiled.

Fundamentally, a drought is a large-scale lack of rain (or, strictly speaking, precipitation, because some parts of the world rely on snow for their freshwater). When governments are working as they should, they play a key role in responding to less-than-normal precipitation—helping people access food or, if necessary, relocate, and making decisions to drill deeper for water or seek outside help. When a government is less effective, its response to a drought tends to magnify its impact. This makes droughts political phenomena as well as geographic ones; a drought tests institutions’ willingness and ability to provide support to their most vulnerable citizens.

In Kenya, the geographic dynamics are well understood. Droughts are relative. In places like Turkana, one or two days of rainfall per year isn’t unusual, while in Nairobi the same would be cause for alarm. Droughts are also cyclical, especially in marginal areas like Turkana. There are two rainy seasons in Kenya: March to May (MAM) and October to December (OND), and in cycles of five or ten years, either the MAM or the OND rains will fail.

The political dynamics have been a little less predictable. When institutions fail, even a foreseeable drought becomes a catastrophe.

“This year was definitely worse,” Joseph Ng’ang’a tells me. “In 2016 it only rained for two days. No people died [this year], which is a relief, but the number of animals that died was astounding.” Ng’ang’a is a manager with the Lodwar Diocese Clean Water Project (known as the Turkana Water Project), which drills boreholes—deep, narrow holes in the ground that allow a mechanical pump to pull water from underground sources—across the county to provide clean, free, and accessible water. The Project manages more than 1,200 boreholes across Turkana. Where there’s a need, they work to fill it: their most remote borehole is in Kibish, about 370 kilometers (230 miles) from Lodwar. Over nearly forty years in operation, other NGOs and governments have come and gone, but the Project persists in its simple mission of bringing groundwater to the surface.

By default, the Project’s boreholes are an integral part of the early warning system for drought in the county. Each borehole is managed by a local committee that knows to call or get a message to Ng’ang’a and his team when its pump breaks down. While pumps are always breaking down as a matter of course, when they all start failing the team knows a drought is underway.

“They break down because of overuse,” Ng’ang’a says, explaining that as surface water disappears and groundwater becomes the primary source of freshwater, more people are using the boreholes, increasing their wear and tear. “We have to send teams out to fix them. It forces us into the countryside to get a better picture.” As early as November 2016, Ng’ang’a and his team were crisscrossing the country, trying to get hundreds of pumps up and running again, stumbling across rotting carcasses of dead animals overwhelmed by the dryness. “There were places in the South where they had so many carcasses around that the smell would have chased you away,” he says.

Ng’ang’a’s team alerted the local and national governments. But between the drought in 2011 and the 2016 calamity, Kenya had changed profoundly. A new constitution was passed in 2010 that fundamentally reorganized the country’s political system. The 2013 election ushered in an administration vehemently opposed to what it saw as the freewheeling attitude of international organizations in the country, like Oxfam and Save the Children.

Before 2010, Kenya was a centralized state subdivided into eight vastly unequal provinces. The largest of these was the Rift Valley Province, which stretched from Turkana at the Uganda/South Sudan/Ethiopia border to Namanga at the Tanzanian border. This made Rift Valley one of the most difficult provinces to administer, and Turkana perhaps the most neglected part of a pretty unevenly administered country. Under this system, the Catholic Church and international development organizations (which were supporting millions of refugees fleeing conflicts in neighboring countries) were providing key services that the state would not provide, like healthcare and education. “You must understand,” says Ronald Musyoki, one of Ng’ang’a’s deputies at the Water Project, “for the last fifty years the diocese has been the government here. Only devolution has changed that.”

Under the 2010 constitution, devolution refers to the constitutional process of carving forty-seven administrative units—counties—out of the previous eight. These counties, headed up by governors and with their own executives and legislatures, were supposed to bring services closer to the people. Devolution took some essential functions away from the central government and vested them in the counties, with budgetary allocations weighted by size and poverty indices.

In urban counties like Nairobi and Mombasa, devolution seems to have created a weighty, expensive bureaucracy that does little for people’s day-to-day lives. But in Turkana, the shifting of central government functions to the county administration has succeeded in giving local leaders more control over regional priorities. Today, Lodwar is looking less like a frontier town and more cosmopolitan—a fledgling center of commerce. Fewer people in Turkana have reason to ask visitors from Nairobi, “How is Kenya?”

Given all this, the political failures that compounded the 2017 drought should have been avoidable. Apart from the fact that the drought itself wasn’t unexpected, the new Kenya was supposed to be more responsive when people like Ekuom, from his village in Kataru, and Ng’ang’a, from his office in Lodwar, sounded the alarm.

“The county was in denial for a long time,” says Ng’ang’a. “As early as November we knew that there was a drought, but the county didn’t respond until February, when people from remote areas started to arrive in towns looking for water.” Ekuom says country officials didn’t understand where people were hurting: “They stayed in town and never came down to the village to ask the elders what was happening.”

This drought affected the broader region. In some rural areas of Kenya (which make up some 74 percent of the country), rivers and other freshwater sources had dried up completely, forcing people to walk three times their normal distance in search of water. Because food production in Kenya remains largely dependent on seasonal rainfall, across the country food production dipped while food prices skyrocketed. Production of maize, the national staple, decreased by 99 percent in coastal regions, while the national food price index rose by up to 25 percent.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2.7 million people in the affected regions lacked access to enough quality, affordable food. More than 350,000 children and pregnant and lactating women were acutely malnourished—visibly, severely wasting. In arid and semi-arid regions like Turkana, 2017 was the third year in a row that the long rains had failed, so the suffering, unlike the water, ran deep.

* * *

To an outsider, any day in the desert is much like the others: mercury rises slowly throughout the day and peaks in the afternoon, before plunging in the middle of the night with the disappearance of clouds (and, with them, insulation). But people who live in deserts know that these lands are alive and changing. There is a difference between a semi-desert—a frontier region that appears desert-like, but receives some more rain than a true desert—on a dry day, and a drought. It takes all sorts of expertise to read the signs accurately and get people in Turkana and other semi-arid areas through these tough seasons.

In arid and semi-arid areas, nothing is more crucial to survival than the ability to accurately and rapidly read the dryness. Missing or misreading the signs of failing rains could mean days or weeks without food. Turkana herders keep close watch on the underbrush, much of which has small shoots but deep roots that seek underground sources of water. The herders wait until the thin layer of grass disappears; when it becomes too difficult to find new greenery, it’s a sign that the condition is widespread. They also watch the goats. These animals can endure dryness over a long period, but succumb quickly once the climate becomes too extreme. “It’s called lomoo,” Ekuom tells me, using the Turkana name for peste des petits ruminants (PPR), often known as goat plague. “The goats get sick, they have really bad diarrhea, and then they die.” When the goats start dying, a hard year is on its way.

In 2017, elders like Ekuom knew that something major was brewing but they couldn’t put their fingers on it. Lodwar is one of the hottest places in Kenya, but the air felt dryer than usual and there was almost no water anywhere. The Turkwel River, which rises in Mount Elgon on the Kenya-Uganda border, traversing the vast county before limping into Lake Turkana, dried up completely, its sandy bed refusing to yield even the smallest drop of water. It was dry enough for residents of Lodwar to walk across. This was an ominous sign: Turkwel almost never dries up completely—usually a thin rivulet persists even when the river isn’t at its full might.

Ekuom and other elders struggled to make sense of what the alarming aridity was saying, and to figure out a plan. A common saying in Kenya, Hii ni joto ya mvua, means, “This heat/humidity tells us that that a heavy rain is coming.” So was this unprecedented dryness a symptom of an impending heavy rain, or just more drought?

* * *

“The story of water in Turkana is a story of broken systems and half-assed intervention,” says Ikal Angelei. A few years shy of forty, her shoulder-length, gold-brown locks and relaxed smile make her look younger and less experienced than she is. But Angelei, a founder of the nonprofit Friends of Lake Turkana, made history in 2012 when she won the prestigious Goldman Prize, in recognition of her advocacy against the construction of the Gibe complex of dams in Ethiopia. She joined Phyllis Omido as one of two Kenyan women to have claimed the prize, and Nobel Peace Prize–winner Wangari Maathai as a Kenyan woman known for protecting the natural environment from government excess. She divides her time between the corridors of power in Nairobi and Lodwar, lobbying against policy decisions that threaten the survival of the lake and the people who depend on it. In Lodwar she is a celebrity, and in the restaurant where we meet, people stop to greet her before they leave.

Built at a cost of $1.8 billion, the Gibe complex is the third-largest hydroelectric project in Africa. Theoretically, it could double energy production in Ethiopia with the flip of a switch. The Ethiopian government insists that the dam is necessary for local and regional development, but critics argue that it will flood the homelands of rural communities, displacing hundreds, while starving Lake Turkana downstream, and destroying the associated ecosystem. Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia, they say, actually need the extra energy it will provide.

With the first two phases of dam construction complete, the lake is already receding and increasingly saline, threatening the lives and livelihoods of many of the indigenous communities that depend on it. Once the third of three dams that make up the Gibe project is complete, some experts argue, the lake could split into two. Clearly, it would make sense for the Kenyan government to oppose the dam. But an agreement to share the electricity it generates would make Kenya the main beneficiary, and this (according to Angelei, as well as some county officials) has made the national government slow to publicly raise concerns.

“I’ve had meetings with county officials where they’ve asked me to take their complaints to national government,” Angelei says, speaking to the residual local habit of delegating important functions to NGOs. Her experience also speaks to the complicated relationship between Lodwar and Nairobi, triggered by the complexities of devolution. Turkana’s governor is a senior opposition figure who has been a thorn in the administration’s side. The central government retaliates against such hostile counties by delaying disbursement of funds or by undermining the opposition. And the people of Turkana remain caught in the middle.

In October 2016, as politicians in Nairobi were ramping up for the election to be held in August of the next year, Ekuom was not worried about this tension. Several hours walk south of Lodwar, in the small village of Kataru, he was reading the signs of the countryside and already concerned that a drought was underway. The thin grass cover that sustains his camels, cattle, and goats was completely gone, signaling the end of the dry season, but there wasn’t a cloud in sight, and no signs of the much-anticipated October rains. Young men and women grazing cattle in the countryside were having to walk further and further away in search of pasture, and the hand-dug wells that supplemented water drawn from boreholes were dry. “It started in September,” he remember. “There was no grass, and the laga (river) was completely dry. But there was no announcement from the government, even though we in the countryside knew a drought was underway.”

“The announcement” is the official declaration of drought that allows emergency measures to start, and domestic and international aid agencies to intervene. Drought protocols are complicated things, a complex language of signs and etiquette. Generally, only a government is allowed to declare a drought. Some states see a declaration of drought as a concession of failure and a threat to their international image, and so refuse to make the declaration until the situation is so dire that it can only be managed with external help. (The 1985 USA to Africa campaign may have raised millions of dollars, but it also permanently painted Ethiopia as a dirt-poor, dependent country filled with strife.)

International NGOs can sometimes help influence a declaration, with marginal repercussions. But they can also abuse their power—using images of vulnerable children and families to raise funds in Europe and North America, only to dedicate the bulk of the money to paying salaries and overhead costs in those countries. Accusations of such abuses lend support to governments that insist that international NGOs need local oversight. Still, with that oversight comes less room to independently assess and evaluate a situation, further vesting responsibility in the government.

In Kenya, local organizations like the Turkana Water Project, so often on the frontlines of drought situations, do not have the clout to ignore the strict hierarchies between nonprofits and the state. Before they can fundraise or launch campaigns for drought support, they must wait. “Before the government announces, outside help can’t come in,” says Ng’ang’a. “We can’t even get an external team to come and help us maintain the boreholes until we get an announcement.”

With the election looming, the sitting administration was desperate to control any negative news about the drought. A PR disaster could cost the incumbent his seat. Even as the world tuned in to one of the most contested elections in African history, away from the cameras, people were starving. This drought wasn’t going to stay in the villages—its impact would hit cities hard, as food prices rose—but both local and international media would downplay its gravity. And even as the impact of the drought intensified, the official government announcement was delayed.

In the lead-up to the vote, distribution of food aid was politicized. When the boreholes failed, government and nonprofits trucked water into the worst affected outposts. But the distribution of water remained political. In violation of campaign laws, both major political parties distributed food and water aid through vehicles branded with the logos of their political parties. Exactly a week before the election, a cabinet secretary zipped through Turkana in a ruling party–branded truck, distributing aid that was paid for by the state.

On August 8, over 15 million Kenyans peacefully cast their ballots. By August 9, the opposition was claiming that the server hosting electoral results had been hacked, and that the officially announced results were fake. On August 11, when the chair of the electoral commission announced that the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, had won, sporadic violence broke out as pro-opposition protesters clashed with the heavy-handed police. Over the next week, at least twenty-eight unarmed civilians died, including a six-month-old baby, clubbed to death by the police in her mother’s arms. Only on September 1—when the Supreme Court annulled the electoral result, finding that the election was indeed procedurally flawed—was there a moment’s rest.

So the story of Kenya’s thirsty, hungry year was pushed further from the front pages, displaced by political droning. Eight months after the election, transient interventions have offered the people of Turkana little lasting relief. Joshua Ebei, one of the young men huddled around Ekuom at the market, is frustrated and angry. His shirt and suit trousers suggest that he spends more time in town than the older man does. Passionate and highly animated, he taps a finger into his opposite palm to emphasize a point, taking to his feet when it seems like his hands alone cannot convey the urgency of an argument. “Politicians,” he says, “come here with their helicopters and cars and sell us lots of promises like schools and hospitals. But then they leave, and we are still hungry.”

With devolution, disaster management is a shared function of the national and county administration. The early warnings come from the Kenya Meteorological Department, which uses advanced satellite systems to measure grass cover and rainfall. A monthly briefing helps staff monitor the ongoing threat of emergency. But the county also has disaster-management committees down to the village level. This system includes, for example, an elaborate color-coded system of flags hoisted at public places like schools and chief’s camps to notify locals of the risk level. A green flag means everything is normal; a red flag means an emergency is underway.

At the livestock market, Ekuom maintains that in 2017, communication between these village-level systems and those at the national and county levels failed. He argues that the county capital is particularly bad at listening to people in more remote parts of the country, and especially to older residents who have more experience in reading the desert. “They should listen to the elders instead of sending people from Nairobi and Lodwar town who come here and measure things,” Ekuom says. “But they don’t.”

“There’s not enough research into traditional systems of knowledge,” Angelei told me. “So you have all this mapping and data but very little conversation about impacts, or partnerships beyond ‘me and my borehole.’”

Josphat Lotual, a representative of the National Disaster Management Authority, confirms that the elaborate flag system was not used in 2016. “Many of the flags are in disrepair,” he says from an observation mission in Lokitaung, about thirty-six miles from the Kenya/Ethiopia border. “The project is not supported anymore, and most of the flags were destroyed by the sun.” Indeed, the flag project is one of many that has slipped through the cracks since the onset of devolution: the NGOs that funded them no longer operate in the county, and neither the national nor the local government has prioritized them.

Indeed, international partnerships have frayed considerably in recent years. In 2014, the NGO coordination board—which oversees the registration and compliance of domestic and international NGOs—announced new restrictions on work permits for immigrants working in the aid sector. “You cannot tell me that in this whole country we [do not] have a Kenyan who can fill the space of the expatriate,” the chairman said. In Turkana, their absence is felt, highlighting the region’s history of relying on outsiders to fill key logistics and operational gaps, Nairobi’s chronic neglect, and the new county’s struggle to compensate.

* * *

Deserts sometimes feel like places where time stands still—where the boundaries between eras and events melt, so that everything becomes an endless tale of heat and struggle. But water, or the lack of it, draws lines between times, experiences, and seasons and helps delineate time. Among the Turkana, severe droughts are given names that describe their impact, and people often explain their age or tell stories using those names as guideposts. The 1960 drought is known as Nomator, meaning “bones exposed,” because of the number of dead animals that littered the countryside. The 1970 drought is known as Kimududu, “the plague that killed livestock and humans.” The 1979/80 drought is Lopiar, the devastating drought that “swept everything away.”

The national government finally declared a drought in February 2017. It wasn’t until nearly a year later, on March 2, 2018, that the skies over Kenya opened at last. But this latest drought still hasn’t been named, because it isn’t over. Some residents have suggested the name Kitijake, because it forced “everyone to gather together”—meaning that, for the first time, pastoralists moved primarily toward major population centers within the county rather than to Uganda, Ethiopia, or South Sudan. This is one of the silent impacts of the devolution process—shifting social behavior in response to new political realities. With devolution of emergency response, local government is the primary provider of emergency relief rather than Nairobi, and aid is distributed primarily at IDP camps near existing population centers.

Meanwhile, the national political situation remains fraught. With a measly 38 percent voter turnout, the October 2017 rerun of the annulled election only plunged the country into more uncertainty. (Turnout for the election in August was 79 percent.) The opposition refused to accept the incumbent’s victory and organized a parallel inauguration for their candidate in February. For attempting to cover that event, three of the country’s largest media houses were pulled off air and several journalists threatened with arrest. The cabinet has been revamped but only nine cabinet secretaries are in office, and these remain unconfirmed by the national assembly, as required by law. The Executive has declared war on the judiciary for annulling the August result, ignoring court orders with impunity, and challenging the principle of rule of law. An infamous public handshake between the incumbent and the leader of the opposition, on the eve of a visit from then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has only upended political hierarchies in both parties.

In Turkana, less than five centimeters of rain have fallen and the ground remains parched. “There’s been so little rain that there isn’t any grass,” Ekuom says. “In fact, the dry rain is worse, because nothing grows and it leaves dust everywhere.” Many members of his community remain in Uganda and Ethiopia, marching in search of pasture. “We hear rumors of help, but they are only helping people in town,” he says, staring into the dry unknown. “No one helps pastoralists. What are we supposed to do? The only help for the pastoralists is in God.”

*

The dry season in Kenya officially ended in mid-March 2018. Much of the country, including parts of Turkana, is now struggling with flooding.

Nanjala Nyabola

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is the author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet is Changing Kenya (Zed Books, 2018).

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