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The Struggle of Farming a Land Where ‘Normal’ Has Lost Its Meaning

March 30, 2010

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No one complained that the rains were late when they watered the parched hills and muddied the roads here in December. Normally, they would have begun weeks earlier.

Villagers were grateful the rain had come at all.

“God is great. After these two seasons of the worst drought, now there is something in the fields,” proclaimed Daniel Muthembwa, 76, an elder in this small farming community, a three-hour drive on winding roads from Nairobi. Around him, cornstalks dotted the green slopes and promised relief from the worst dry spell he could remember. Never had two seasons’ crops and three years of rains failed so completely, he said.

“Normal” has little meaning in Sakai today. Kenya is struggling to emerge from a drought that put 4 million on food aid last year and saw at least 10 million facing starvation, the highest levels in two decades, according to one report. And while dry spells are old hat in a nation dominated by an arid and semiarid climate, today rising global temperatures are ending what little predictability farmers could count on in the past.

Experts predict climate change will increase Kenya’s already tough food security challenges. Its small landholding farmers feed most of the country and also make up most of its swelling poor population. By 2080, the World Bank estimates that African agricultural output could fall by 16 percent.

Recent drought periods have slashed Kenya’s gross domestic product by 14 percent, for example. When both crops and livestock herds perished in droves last year, many Kenyans cut down trees to sell firewood or moved to cities in a desperate search for work. Food imports rose, hydroelectric power stagnated, trucks shipped emergency water supplies. Meanwhile, aid supplies were stretched thin.

In Sakai, however, residents have borne the recent hard times better than many neighbors. They credit a U.N.-funded small budget pilot program to buffer them against the shocks of growing climate uncertainty.

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