No water or too much water is one of the world’s greatest problems just now. And it is just getting worse, says the assessment from experts. Climate change hits the world’s poorest hardest. Come with us to northern Kenya and Bangladesh where people are struggling to survive.
By Mathilde Berg Utzon and Rikke Østergård
Right from early morning the sun blazes down from a cloudless sky. The air is dry. No one can stand being in the sun longer than necessary; it quickly drains one’s strength. And there isn’t much strength left in the village of Kaemongor in the Turkana region in northern Kenya.
“This year is the worst year ever and if help doesn’t arrive we will all die,” is the apocalyptic warning from 81 year old Eregae Lokeno Nakali.
Last year he lost his wife, sister and daughter from diseases that killed their starved bodies.
The Turkana region is in East Africa where 14.6 million people, according to a UN report from December 2017, are starving. Many suffer, according to the UN, the same fate as Eregae Nakali; and their lives are threatened. Others are hungry but not quite in mortal danger. The countries that are hardest hit according to ACAPS are Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea and Kenya. Here 5.2 million children and women are severely undernourished and malnourished and in Kenya alone 19,000 children die of malnutrition.
Eregae’s look is intense and friendly. Between his chin and his lower lip he has a round, silver coloured piece of jewellery. His cheeks are sunken and the wrinkles are deep. It bears witness to a long life. He has experienced how a wealthy life with three wives and enough food has been replaced by extreme poverty and daily uncertainty.
“I don’t know why it has become so dry. It must be God’s plan,” he says.
Climate change represents a serious threat to millions of people and the future of the future of the planet. On the Horn of Africa, which lies in eastern Africa, the two worst consequences of climate change are that the temperature is rising and water is vanishing. In other places, like Bangladesh, the greatest problem is the opposite, that the water is rising and land areas are vanishing.
Before the drought destroyed almost all life in the village of Kaemongor, people lived on wild fruit and had small farms along the rivers, most of which were full of water. Storks and flamingos lived in balance with singing grasshoppers and insects. Life was simple. Most years there was enough food for both animals and people. It usually rained from June to December. The remaining six months were dry.
But everything changed in 1991. After that the rain didn’t fall as it used to and every year the people in the area experienced drought. People had to get used to going to bed hungry large parts of the year.
Between 1991 and 1992 the world experienced a strong version of the weather phenomenon El Niño that occurs every seven years. It is a period of unusual heating of the Pacific Ocean that influences the world’s climate differently. In eastern Africa the population – as in Kaemongor – was hit by a harsh drought.
The countryside around Kaemongor is today sandy and dry. The only vegetation that can survive is trees and bushes with thick, sharp thorns that are several centimetres long. Eregae says that the clouds have vanished and the sun is warmer than before.
It isn’t just Eregae who has noticed that the temperature is rising. Climate scientists have too. Since the year 1900, the global temperature has risen by about 0.8 degrees and 2016 is registered as the warmest year ever according to NASA. The temperature in 2016 was an all-time high due to the general rise in temperature in addition to the occurrence of El Niño between 2015-2016 according to the World Meteorological Organization.
“The causes of drought on the Horn of Africa are a combination of a natural and unfortunate period and of man-made climate change,” explains climate researcher Chris Funk who is a geographer at the University of Santa Barbara in California and who is a specialist in rain patterns on the Horn of Africa. It is difficult to predict developments but he expects that the situation will only get worse. “We know with certainty that the temperature will continue to rise,” says Chris Funk.
The rising temperature influences the climate in different ways. The warmer it gets, the more limited access to water is for the population of the Horn of Africa. In some areas the rainfall is reduced significantly and in other areas it rains less and differently from before. No one can plan on rain any more.
The rain that does fall evaporates faster than before due to the rise in temperature, the American scientist explains.
In 2016 and the first half of 2017 it only rained one single day in Eregae’s village. That was in August. All his animals have died due to the drought. Most people in the area have also lost most of their animals or the entire flock. Those who still have a small number of cattle left are desperate to keep them alive.
William Emus of 65 from a neighbouring village has sent his remaining 10 cows and 30 goats to the war-torn neighbouring country South Sudan to graze. Last year he lost two nephews who were tending the cattle in the dangerous neighbouring country that is just 150 kilometres away.
There is hardly any doubt why Eregae has experienced changes in the weather conditioned throughout his life. 97 percent of all climate scientists in the world agree that the climate changes, hammering away at full speed, in all probability points back to us humans. NASA spells it out for us.
By wrapping a sort of blanket around the earth, the greenhouse gases ensure that the sun’s rays are not reflected directly back and out into space. In other words, the greenhouse gases hold on to the heat and without the greenhouse effect the earth would be a much colder place.
As long as we people use fossil fuels, more CO2 will be sent into the atmosphere which results in a rising temperature inside the greenhouse. And that is an important part of the explanation for why the climate is changing.
Even though access to water is reduced markedly in large parts of eastern Africa, water on a global basis hasn’t vanished. Rain that used to fall on the Horn of Africa now falls heavily on Indonesia in areas that are being hit by floods, the climate scientist Chris Funk explains.
It is not just in areas close to Indonesia that people struggle with floods and rising water. Bangladesh is one of the countries in the world that is hardest hit by climate change. Millions of people there are vulnerable because of water that is rising according to reliefweb.int.
Both Kenya and Bangladesh are affected by climate change – but in very different ways.
The river’s greyish water is easy to see through the big holes in the rusty grey tin sheets that make up the walls of the little hut. In fact, the surface of the water is only about twenty centimetres from the mud platform on the one side while on the other side there is about a meter to the muddy river.
Even though the water on both sides is creeping dangerously close to the simple, jerry-built home, the hut is nevertheless the least uncertain solution for Shonda Bayn and her family in southern Bangladesh.
For nearly eight years she has lived here with her husband, her now 12 year old daughter and her 18 year old son, Shonda tells and forces a cautious smile. Her cheeks are round, the dark brown look is gentle and calm and like most women from Bangladesh she has a pierced nose with a discreet silver-coloured jewel in it.
Shonda remembers back to the reason why they ended up living here. It was not voluntarily. Bangladesh is threatened by water from all sides and like millions of others; Shonda’s family lost everything to the totally destructive masses of water back in May 2009 when the cyclone, Aila, hit southern Bangladesh.
“It rained a little in the morning. I was alone at home with my five year old daughter. My husband worked far away as a day labourer. Suddenly in the afternoon the rain became much heavier. When the water began to flood into the house I took my daughter in my arms and ran away,” she tells.
“There was water everywhere. I was so afraid. The wind was strong and lifted the houses around us. They were thrown down over me and I fell. My child was hit on the head. I fainted, so I don’t remember anything after that,” explains Shonda.
Over 300 people died in Bangladesh when Aila hit and over one million people were, like Shonda’s family, homeless all at once. Global warming makes the cyclones stronger and more destructive. That hit hard in countries like Bangladesh where almost one third live under the poverty line and the water in the many large rivers easily can rise and cause violent destruction that can have fatal consequences.
“I heard about Aila when I was at work in the town. I was so worried about my wife and wanted to go home as fast as possible,” Shonda’s husband Poritush Bayn tells about the fateful day.
When he got home the next day the village was totally changed.
“All the houses were gone, everything was under water and all our neighbours stood on the raised stretches of road. My brother had saved my wife who had fainted and our daughter who was hurt.”
In the period after that, the family succeeded in collecting bamboo and simple materials from the previous house to build the simple hut they live in now on a raised platform they have borrowed.
But the rivers are spreading slowly all over Bangladesh and are eating away at the porous earth. Therefore thousands of people in Bangladesh become homeless and unemployed. And if the sea water rises just one meter, one fifth of Bangladesh will probably vanish permanently.
Shonda’s daughter, 12 year old Biuti Bayn, says that she doesn’t remember anything of the flight away from the house during Aila’s ravages where she, in her mother’s arms, got pieces of houses on top of her. Her look is depressed and empty. Without focus.
“All my friends are in this area. I don’t want to have to find a new home again,” she says carefully.
When she has gone back into the hut her father looks worried. Bangladesh is in the front row with respect to climate change.
“Our children have no future here. The rivers are getting wider and the destruction from the water will make the earth here vanish. It will be impossible. But right now we just cannot afford to go anywhere else.”
Just as Shonda Bayn struggles to survive on top of a fragile foundation, Eregae Lokeno Nakali in northern Kenya is sitting on his land that opens up in deeper and deeper cracks under him.
“Life today is extremely difficult. There isn’t food for the children and I am afraid that the children cannot survive here,” he tells.
He cannot remember when he and the children last got food. But he visits a family member in the village when it is possible so they can get food in the middle of the day.
The fear of losing one’s children and grandchildren to hunger and diseases induced by hunger is real. Last year was a fateful year for Eregae and his family.
Sand coloured, brown and grey stones the size of a fist lie placed in a row in a light brown sandy landscape. Around the stone pattern lie dried branches that the wind has spread randomly across the landscape. This is where Eregae’s daughter Napua Eregae lies buried. Only a local person from the area could point out her grave, which is almost invisible in the surroundings.
It was in May last year that her body gave up to hunger. Eregae had no food to give her, and he couldn’t afford to take her to the hospital that was too far away. He explains that he couldn’t do anything while his daughter died before his eyes.
“It was terrible. I found it very difficult,” he says.
And as though it was not enough for Eregae Lokeno Nakali to lose three of his closest family members, he has also lost his wealth, his identity and employment. All because of the drought and almost no help from outside – neither from the Kenyan government or from international NGOs. Nor from DanChurchAid.
Eregae has all his life been what is called a pastoralist. A pastoralist keeps animals, typically cows, goats, donkeys and camels, and follows the animals around much of the year to areas where the animals can graze. They can perhaps be compared to shepherds. They lead a sort of nomadic life and that is, in large parts of the Horn of Africa, the most common way to live.
About 50 million pastoralists live south of the Sahara desert the World Bank estimates, and their livelihood is seriously threatened because water and grass for the animals have become rare resources.
The animals are the pastoralist’s security, wealth and status. Before the climate changed, Eregae had 400 cows, 800 goats, 200 camels and 40 donkeys. In April he lost his last 200 goats due to hunger and drought. All that is left is an empty animal pen and a courtyard with thousands of dried goat droppings.
Far from the pastoralists, Saya Rai lives in Bangladesh. The 26 year old slight woman lives just a few hundred meters from Shonda and her family in the southern part of the slowly sinking country. She lives with her husband and 9 year old daughter in a hut with an earth floor that is slightly raised with the help of strong bamboo.
Even though they also lost their home during cyclone Aila, the worst was the loss of the farmland that they lived off. The family’s livelihood, the big fishpond, was completely flooded. Today their big piece of land doesn’t exist anymore. It has become a part of the hungry river that, already before Aila, was beginning to eat away at the family’s land.
“Aila got the rest of what the river hadn’t taken yet to vanish all at once,” says Saya.
The rivers are increasingly getting wider all the time in Bangladesh and make the heavily populated country, which is three times the size of Denmark, vanish. Climate change accelerates the decline and threatens the country’s more than 160 million inhabitants. Many villages are affected. Some families live for many months on a riverbank and sleep in the open until they manage to establish a new temporary home.
Saya’s mother-in-law, Gomila Bayn, turns up from the hut next door. When the little lady with the gold coloured nose piercing turns her face to us, it is impossible not to see the tumour the size of a tennis ball under her chin.
“I have had it for 15 or 16 years,” she says and sighs. I don’t know if it is dangerous. I can’t afford to go to the doctor,” she says.
It is a three hours trip by boat and car to the closest doctor. “It is because we are malnourished. We get sick when we can’t grow food out here” she explains dryly.
It isn’t just the rivers that make the vital agricultural work die. As the sea water rises on the land, salt water penetrates gradually into the flat landscape of southern Bangladesh. Crops die and relief agencies like DanChurchAid try to help with specially developed salt resistant crops. But that doesn’t change the fact that Bangladesh is gradually vanishing under the surface of the water.
While the two women talk it begins to drip from the thundery, grey sky. And in a few minutes the rain increases and becomes a drenching downpour that forces the families to seek shelter under the roof that is Saya’s home.
The monsoon is the heavy rainy season that is often found in countries with a tropical climate, but it has changed its pattern in the last few years. More rain falls in the annual monsoon season while the drought elsewhere has become drier.
Saya says that the earth the house stands on is borrowed from other people and she thinks they will want it back soon. She knows she can’t stay here and thinks about various possibilities, even though she doesn’t have any money to pay for moving.
Her situation is not unique and that means that between 300,000 and 400,000 people every year migrate to the capital, Dhaka, which is one of the world’s most heavily populated and rapidly growing cities. Many end up in the big slum areas and have trouble finding work. Saya can’t handle that thought.
“Perhaps we can go to India. If we can find the money perhaps we can buy som land there.” she says vaguely. The Indian border is about 60 kilometres from the village and many rivers reach from Bangladesh over there.
“If we travel over there along the rivers there is perhaps no-one who will ask about identity papers,” Saya adds.
She doesn’t have any papers either. But she is sure that her little family will become part of the growing migration in and out of Bangladesh in the years to come. That is the only way out of the sinking country.
While Bangladesh is gradually swallowed by the sea, the sun is drying the Horn of Africa and making large areas uninhabitable. The population in the countryside is forced to move. Most of them look to the nearby cities in the search for work and basic survival, but some go on a longer trip to the biggest cities and end up categorised in the statistics as internally displaced persons.
Furthermore, climate change and extreme natural phenomena’s force people to cross borders just as Saya Rai in Bangladesh is planning to do.
In Eregae’s little village in Kenya the inhabitants must also live with the consequences of the drought. Many of Eregae’s family members have moved to the closest town, Kakuma. He has 18 children and 27 grandchildren that he knows about, but only a couple of his sons have stayed behind in Kaemongor. His neighbours have moved and when you drive through the countryside you see abandoned homes.
Now Eregae Lokeno Nakali is left behind and doesn’t know how long he and the children can survive. But he still doesn’t have any plans to move from his home.
“I am getting old and I can’t migrate. I am used to being here, and my sons have already gone from here,” explains the now 81 year old Eregae Lokeno Nakali.
It is not just on the Horn of Africa and in Bangladesh that people have no alternative to leaving their countries and crossing borders. It is a global phenomenon.
Scientists are not in agreement about how dystopian a future scenario we are facing and how many will in the future have to migrate due to the climate.
Numbers vary between 200 million in 2050 to a billion in 2100. But the number depends to a certain extent on how much global warming is reduced and how good people in the hardest hit areas become at adapting to climate change in the years to come.
Surrounded by dried goat droppings and reminded about a time that is no more, Eregae Lokeno Nakali has two wishes for the future.
He needs new animals and he badly needs rations of food or cash to buy food. But just now it is uncertain whether and when anyone will come to rescue him and all his neighbours in northern Kenya.
Eregae has lost his strength for today. Slowly he totters over to a tree close by and lies down in the shade. He rests his head on a wooden stool, roughly 30 centimetre high, that he always takes with him. For him it is a matter of saving strength before it is all used up and isn’t there anymore.
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