By Hilary Heath
The rains have been slow to arrive this season. In Kenya, the “long rains” historically fall March to May. Not anymore. When I traveled to Kenya in April, the rain still hadn’t come. Communities feel the burden of this unpredictability. Almost everyone that we spoke with had the same lament: without the rains, we struggle. This situation reflects an all-too-common story. As weather changes, communities seek stability.
Situations like this underscore the importance of gatherings like the 13th annual Community Based Adaptation Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. CBA13 brought together practitioners, grassroots representatives, local and national government planners, policymakers and donors to discuss the best ways to empower local communities in building and implementing their own solutions for climate adaptation. After attending the conference, I visited organizations in Ethiopia and Kenya demonstrating the power and effectiveness of community-based adaptation measures.
Community buy-in is key for adaptation measures to succeed. In Kajiado County, Kenya, CJRF partner Il’laramatak Community Concerns hosts community dialogues about climate change so that community members can better understand the issue and come up with solutions that work for them. These dialogues also allow for solutions that integrate traditional community knowledge. I heard participants raise concerns about the extended dry period and the many ways the water shortage was affecting their lives.
Longer and more extreme dry seasons are not unique to Kenya, and they’re not the only climatic changes East Africans are contending with. Farmers in Ethiopia have implemented small-scale water interventions that respond to both droughts and flooding brought on by climate change. In 2015, the Global Resilience Partnership awarded Mekelle University and MetaMeta with a Global Resilience Challenge grant to transform the way roads are planned and built. Now, carefully designed roads channel water runoff so that rains recharge ground water instead of flooding fields. MetaMeta and Mekelle University have worked with local authorities to help plan road locations so that they help farmers harvest rainwater, prevent soil erosion, and improve the use of roadside land. By using heavy rains for recharging the ground water, farmers have a water source during the dry seasons.
Additionally, farmers have been implementing simple technology interventions, such as terracing the mountainside, and digging trenches and ponds, all of which control runoff. The trenches and ponds also have the added benefit of recharging the groundwater. Small-scale irrigation has also become an effective stability tool for many farmers. By using the water from a nearby dam, farmers have been irrigating their crops, leading to green and productive lands, even during the dry season.
In Abreha Weatsbeha, which was historically one of the most food insecure areas in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, these interventions have been truly transformational. The community has been able to use wells and water storage ponds to effectively recharge the groundwater. The result? Over 80% of households benefiting from water harvesting in Abreha Weatsbeha are now food secure.
Back in Kenya, Agnes Leina, Executive Director of Il’laramatak Community Concerns and community leader, has become the go-to woman to consult on community-based adaptation efforts in Kajiado County. Leina, who in the past was instrumental in the creation of Kenya’s first county law prohibiting female genital mutilation (FGM) and made Kajiado County the national lead in FGM reduction, has now turned her attention to climate adaptation.
Leina’s community, faced with the diminishing returns of a traditional pastoral lifestyle, has turned to alternative livelihood measures. The results have been dramatic. No longer must the community depend solely on the weather for their livelihoods. Instead, the community creates products that do not depend on a stable and predictable rainfall. At a new community-built center, women sew garments. The community also makes traditional Masai jewelry and mats. All the goods get taken to market and sold via a newly paved road.
Additional adaptation measures allow communities to continue to maintain livestock. Solutions address the challenges and costs of feeding animals during extended dry periods. In Leina’s community they grind down corn and bean stalks left over from harvest to store for feeding the animals when fresh grass is scarce. This approach provides security when the community needs it most.
When the rains do not fall in East Africa, communities immediately feel the devastating impacts. A long dry season means loss of livestock, decreased food security, and crop failures, among other things. Despite this, with support for community-driven initiatives, people find simple and powerful ways to adapt.