Climate Change and Land Degradation: A Collective Failure in Intervention Triage

Several years back, I read this opinion piece titled ‘Land degradation and climate change: a sin of omission?’(1). I admit I was primarily reading it at the time since the lead author was also my PhD advisor and I was worried he might ask me questions from it for my qualifying exam. However, the article turned out to be extremely thought provoking and its main thesis has remained relevant to my ecological outlook to this day.

Generally, the authors point out that while climate change and land degradation both lead to the loss of provisioning of ecosystem services, they occur at vastly different scales from both space and time perspectives. While climate change may end up having a much larger impact globally in the future, land degradation is having much more devastating impacts right now. On the flip side, while climate change mitigation requires a much more concerted effort globally, especially in the developed world, land degradation can be tackled immediately by individuals, communities, and governments right in the heart of the developing world.

With regards to current degradation impacts, a cursory afternoon drive into either northern or southern Kenya will quickly convince you that a large portion of our country’s natural soil and vegetation resources are either long gone or on their way out. A collaborator of mine once led this study in central Laikipia at a conservancy we considered very well managed, and an island of productivity in an oft-degraded landscape. To our shock, we discovered that a solid 44% of the red soils on this landscape (the more common soil type across northern Kenya) were characterized by completely bare ground. Additionally, only a paltry 23% of the landscape had retained the original top soil, or soil ‘A’ horizon, and that was only under large old trees. Assuming an extremely conservative top soil depth of 5cm, this translates to an astonishing 481 tons of soil lost per hectare!

This type of degradation reduces water available to plants on a piece of land by preventing infiltration, removing organic matter from the soil, and destroying the soil structure. This degradation also makes normal variations in rainfall and temperature worse. In a dry year on a productive piece of land, the vegetation helps reduce surface temperatures and thereby reduces evaporation losses. This is not the case on degraded lands, with surface temperatures on a bare patch of soil with little organic matter reaching up to 60 degrees Celsius, leading to runaway evaporative losses of moisture. Conversely, in a wet year, surface vegetation helps slow down water run off during a rain event, meaning more of it is able to seep into the ground. This reduced flow speed also reduces the likelihood of water-induced soil erosion. Degraded landscapes have no such luxury, with most rainfall immediately running off sloping areas, and rapidly pooling in lower lying areas, leading to both massive erosion and flooding. This leads increasingly to massive gullies and flooded plains, reducing forage for animals and forcing them to graze in increasingly shrinking areas. This imbalance in the ecosystem also creates the opportunity for invasive species to thrive, as has been the case with Acacia reficiens and Opuntia stricta in Samburu and Laikipia (2). As the small stock population on our rangelands grows, they are forced to rely on fewer and fewer productive areas, leading to a vicious cycle of overuse and degradation, even with adequate rainfall. This is a massive problem because Rangelands or Arid and Semi-arid lands (ASALs) occupy approximately 89% of Kenya’s landmass and are home to about 36% of the population, 70% of the national livestock herd and 90% of wildlife.

Halting and reversing the causative agents of climate change, namely Greenhouse gas emissions, is going to take a massive coordinated international effort, especially by the developed world. It is unconscionable that sub- Saharan Africa and other lower income parts of the world are bearing the brunt of the effects of runaway industrialization and mechanization in other parts of the world. The US, Canada, the EU, China, and India account for more than half of annual CO2 emissions, both absolute and per capita. As such, any meaningful solutions to climate change will need these countries and more to play a central role with regards to international agreements, macro-economic policy changes, and technical and financial investments in renewable energies. In the absence of this, the only options left for countries in sub-Saharan Africa is to mitigate and adapt to the local effects of climate change, specifically the increasing disruption in regular weather patterns and drought cycles. While this is a noble and necessary step, in Kenya it brings us back inexorably to the problem of land degradation.

The communities hardest hit by the effects of extreme variability in weather tend to be pastoral communities that rely directly on the land for subsistence and livelihood. I have heard many an observer, usually from a developed nation or from the comfort of an urban arm-chair locally, castigate pastoralism as a dying production system that should be phased out and replaced by dryland agriculture and/or commercial ranching. This mentality callously ignores the inextricable linkage between pastoralism and the millenia-old cultures of a significant portion of Kenya’s rangeland communities. Maasai, Samburu, Pokot, Turkana, Borana, Rendille and many more cultures derive their identity from their nomadic pastoral past, and any attempts to get rid of pastoralism will be invariably seen as an attack on their cultural identity. With the assumption that our overarching aim will not be to get rid of over 20 million pastoral cattle, sheep, and goats, then we still have the massive challenge of ensuring that they are managed in an ecologically responsible and economically rational manner that overcomes the myriads of contemporary problems that pastoral nomadism did not evolve with. Traditional pastoral coping mechanisms for weather variability and losses in forage productivity have slowly broken down over the last century.

Changes in land tenure, land use, resource control and access, as well as the arbitrary delineation of local and national political boundaries have all restricted traditional pastoralism’s biggest asset; mobility. Improvements in security and human and livestock health services have also, ironically, exacerbated the issue, as fewer people and livestock are lost to droughts, conflicts, and disease. As uncomfortable a truth as it is, increase in human population is a reality, and its effects are magnified in communities that rely on extensive production systems like pastoralism. In these areas, a linear increase in human population results in an exponential increase in livestock numbers. This increase in livestock population is unfortunately happening in an area with static or reducing natural forage and water resources. The inevitable result is overuse of forage and water resources. This would happen even within a bubble of climatic staticity, but the fact that weather patterns have become extremely variable only serves to make things worse.

So, in a nutshell, rangelands have been and continue to be degraded at an alarming rate, and the effects of said degradation are possibly being magnified by climate change. So what do we do? First of all, as a society, we need to recognize that while climate change is a threat, land degradation is a far much worse and more immediately solvable problem. When emergency medical personnel arrive at a major accident scene, their workflow involves identifying and sorting victims according to their injuries. The more severe cases like spinal injuries and compound fractures are usually ranked lower than the more immediately resolvable injuries like bleeding, simple fractures and blocked airways, a concept called triage. This allows efficient treatment when resources are unavailable for all patients to be treated simultaneously. This has severely been lacking in most of our policy making as a region, and especially with regards to rangeland production systems. Restoration programmes combined with grazing planning have already had visibly demonstrable positive impact in several pilot programmes across both northern and southern Kenya. Why is there not a concerted effort through a government programme to upscale these lessons?

The Ministry of Devolution and ASAL areas has a whole strategic plan focused on sustainable ASAL development (3). If this programme is to succeed, it should be given all the money and focus. All of it. Forget about the national housing fund, Huduma numbers, all of that. Below is an excerpt from the National Strategy for the Sustainable development of Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs) showing some of the action points from the Land and Natural Resource Management section.

“… In order to ensure sustainable land utilization and natural resource management in the ASALs, the Government will:

  • Map, identify and undertake reclamation, rehabilitation and restoration of degraded lands in the ASALs
  • Establish and support traditional natural resource management systems that promote sound environmental practices in ASALs.
  • Protect indigenous knowledge and practices and promote their use in the protection and conservation of the environment.
  • Protect and increase forest cover, riverine vegetation and critical water catchment areas affecting ASALs, including special ecosystems
  • Fast track land registration and enact laws to guide the protection, management and administration of community land in ASALs.
  • Put in place measures to address rangeland management bottlenecks, including human-wildlife conflicts.
  • Promote efficient adaptation measures for productive and sustainable resource management in the ASALs and involve and empower communities in the management of ASAL ecosystems…”

The framework is in place, all it needs is higher prioritization in both our collective consciousness as a country, as well as our budgetary and political frameworks. Of the 47 counties in Kenya, there are only a few, around 10, that do not have at least 10% of their land area classified as ASAL. These ASAL county governments should be at the forefront of local rehabilitation and livestock management programmes instead of leaving the bulk of this work to the communities themselves and donor-funded NGOs. As popular as it is in certain circles to demonize umbrella organizations like the Northern Rangelands Trust, they remain the last line of ecological and economic defense for a lot of marginalized communities. As commendable as this is, it should not be necessary. Both national and local governments should be heavily invested in livestock improvement programmes, grazing management frameworks, and above all else, large scale soil and grass rehabilitation. Tree planting programmes are commendable as well, but herbaceous material, i.e. grasses and forbs, are more important from both livestock management and ecosystem health restoration perspectives.

In summary, we as a collective have too long ignored the plight of marginalized communities in Kenya’s drier areas. We remember them every time there is a drought and subsequent famine. We forget that drought and famine are not inextricably linked. That failures in land use and land tenure policy, misuse of public funds, and myopia in development planning are what have created this reality where pastoral communities have lost most of their resilience. If we invested time and money in rehabilitating the rangelands they live on, creating sustainable pastoral livestock production systems, and generally reigniting the resilience of both the people and the ecosystems they lived in, we would have much fewer famines, even in drought years. While a large focus of the government’s Big four agenda on food security is commendably on Agricultural production, I would argue that a significant chunk of that focus should be on reinvigorating a production system that directly supports over a third of the country’s population and is at the highest risk of collapsing. Triage. By solving the land degradation problem, we as a country and a continent will be well placed to weather the most adverse local effects of the always looming specter of global climate change.

  1. Herrick, J. E., Sala, O. E., & Karl, J. W. (2013). Land degradation and climate change: a sin of omission?. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 11(6), 283-283. Click here
  2. Kimiti, D. W., Hodge, A. M. C., Herrick, J. E., Beh, A. W., & Abbott, L. E. (2017). Rehabilitation of community-owned, mixed-use rangelands: lessons from the Ewaso ecosystem in Kenya. Plant ecology, 218(1), 23-37. Click here
  3. Ministry of Devolution and ASAL areas (2017). National Strategy for the Sustainable development of Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASALs). Kenya Vision 2030. Click here

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