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Climate change is forcing Kenyan women to leave their homes behind

The climate crisis is predicted to internally displace 29-86 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050.

Climate migration is changing lives in the Global South. As COP27 opens in Egypt, we spoke to Kenyans experiencing the damages of an exceptional drought

This story is a collaboration with Unearthed. Read their story here.

When the worst drought in decades forced Susan Akal and her children to leave their home in Kibish, northwest Kenya in April, she didn’t know they would end up walking around 250 kilometres to find refuge. The continuous arid conditions had dried up the local pasture and water sources, killing most of the family’s goat herd. Left with little access to food or water, Susan, who is in her thirties, felt she had no choice but to abandon the village with her children, leaving her husband behind to care for the remaining goats. Travelling south, from village to village and only as fast as the slowest child, they arrived three weeks later in Kalokol, a fishing town on the edge of Lake Turkana, Africa’s fourth largest lake. 

“When the drought came, everyone had to fend for themselves,” she tells us with great difficulty in her voice, sitting by the lake’s jade waters, which lap around the wooden fishing boats. The sun beats down on the fishermen behind her, as they prepare to go out.

“Our friends and neighbours moved out of the country to find aid, but some remained and who knows what their next move will be? I feel as though my children and I would be living an awful life, if I remained back home. We would’ve ended up like our livestock.” 

“I feel as though my children and I would be living an awful life, if I remained back home. We would’ve ended up like our livestock” 

Susan akal

Reporting for gal-dem and Unearthed, we came to Turkana, Kenya’s most northwestern county, to interview women like Akal who have been displaced as a result of the most prolonged and severe drought that East Africa has seen in decades. It is a cyclical tragedy caused by La Niña – a weather phenomenon that brings dry weather to East Africa – which is now being exacerbated by the climate crisis. Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia have all been hit hard by the drought, which has persisted for four rainfall seasons, and is expected to continue through a fifth this year. More than seven million livestock have died so far, leaving the people who depend on them vulnerable to starvation. Last year, Kenya’s then president, Uhuru Kenyatta, declared the situation “a national disaster”.

Still of Susan by Victor Ombogo

Internal migration linked to the climate crisis is far more common than cross-border migration, which is often the focus of simplistic media headlines and political narratives in the Global North. And when people do cross borders, they are more likely to travel to neighbouring countries than to different continents. Although the women we interview have not crossed any borders, the decision to move is dramatically changing their lives. They seek new homes and livelihoods, with families often forced to separate in the process and mothers left to take care of children on their own.

It’s challenging to gather concrete data on climate migration because so many factors – social, cultural, economic, demographic – can contribute to a person’s decision to migrate. The environmental factors involved, most often rising sea levels, crop failure and water stress, can also evolve gradually. However, the available figures do point to a growing problem. At the end of 2021, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 5.9 million people around the world were internally displaced as a result of weather-related disasters. These included floods, wildfires and droughts, as well as non-climate related events such as earthquakes. 

“At the end of 2021, 5.9 million people around the world were internally displaced as a result of weather-related disasters”

The issue is starkly visible in Pakistan, which is reeling from the impacts of historic flooding that submerged a third of the country and left millions homeless in August. Pakistan’s climate change minister called for financial support for “a new generation of climate migrants” and others experiencing similar loss and damage to be on the agenda at COP27, next month’s climate summit in Egypt.  

Scientific research anticipates that millions more people around the world will be internally displaced if emissions are not rapidly curbed. Of six regions modelled in the World Bank’s recent reports, Sub-Saharan Africa is identified as likely to be the most affected, with 29-86 million internal climate migrants predicted to be present by 2050. Up to 10.1 million of these migrants could move within East Africa. Migration here is often driven by drought in dryland areas that are already fragile. Turkana is one such area: dry and remote. Around 60% of its people are pastoralists, dependent on livestock for their livelihoods. 

Like Akal, Rebecca Loro’s family have long been pastoralists, dependent on goats for their living, but their pasture also dried up in the recent drought. Their home is a village called Nayana, around 13km from Lodwar, Turkana’s largest town. Draped in the colourful beads of her tribe, Loro’s mother Agnes, who is in her fifties, remembers how the landscape – and the lives of pastoralists – has changed over the decades. 

“The years we started having our children, when I had Rebecca, the land was good. There was enough rain and enough milk,” she tells us. “The rain could go away for four months but it would rain in the fifth. Nowadays the rain and drought seasons are no longer there. You can’t know which season is which. It can stay dry for even 10 months.”

Intensifying marginalisations

Loro’s husband decided to leave Nayana in search of more pasture, leaving her to take care of the family. It’s a gender dynamic that can also be seen elsewhere in East Africa, according to Nyathon Hoth Mai, the environment and natural resources program officer at the Sudd Institute, which conducts independent research in South Sudan. “Because women don’t have another source of income, they are left vulnerable and are forced to rely on natural resources. Most of the burden falls on the shoulders of women…It’s [their] responsibility to make sure that children and the elderly are safe.”

In its sixth assessment report on adaptation, impacts and vulnerability, published last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recognised that women are often more affected by the climate crisis, especially when it comes to displacement. This is because women can lack control over a household’s resources, have pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities or because of cultural practices, social norms or lack of education. These factors often mean that women are forced to wait longer to migrate and find better living conditions. 

Young, able-bodied men are the most likely to move, including across Africa. In villages like Nayana, it is striking to see the absence of any younger men. “These days, the land has changed, there is nothing to eat and we are all malnourished… Only old ladies are left in this village in the bare land,” Agnes tells us. 

“These days, the land has changed…Only old ladies are left in this village in the bare land”

Agnes

As the UN’s Human Rights’ Office recognises, older people are often less able to migrate during a disaster because their health makes it harder to travel distances, endure periods without shelter or find food. They can also be more attached to their communities or way of life and less willing to move. If their family members are displaced, this is likely to lead to increased isolation and less support. It can be particularly challenging for older women who are left behind, as they are likely to become responsible for taking care of any remaining children and sometimes the family home and land too.

Left with her three sons and mother to care for, Rebecca, who is in her mid-twenties, eventually decided to leave Nayana. “[My husband] told me to remain behind and decide for myself what to do. There is nothing he left behind… I saw no help forthcoming. This is why I decided to also leave,” she says, sitting nestled between the huts of her new community, while children and goats wander around on the dry ground behind her.

Rebecca speaks to us from Lodwar, where she moved to be close to a flowing river, and to her brother, who found her space to live. She found work on a farm and is participating in a community-led adult education program which teaches the women on the farm vital skills such as how to read pesticide labels. Research suggests that as villages empty of men, women are taking on roles traditionally held by their husbands, brothers and fathers in order to survive. In some countries, this means women are increasingly becoming part of the agricultural labour force. But existing patriarchal societal structures mean that this often doesn’t lead to increased decision-making power – and the new workload is additional to existing work and responsibilities at home. 

Loro hopes to return home, if her husband can save the goats and the availability of pasture and water in Nayana improves. But ultimately, whether that is possible will be determined by the climate. 

Prioritising survival

Short-term migration like this is now a commonly documented response to climate-related water stress, with people often moving to find work as well as water. But some can also become ‘trapped’ in such situations, unable to move due to the same climate impacts dwindling their resources and making migration impossible. This is another neglected aspect of climate migration, which is generally narrated as a story of mobility, told from the perspective of those who move, rather than those who are unable to.

Unfortunately for Agnes, there was not enough space or resources in Lodwar for her to join her daughter. She returned to Nayana, where her other daughter and grandchildren remain too. Life for them is now about survival. They regularly go two to three days without eating, and sometimes travel to Lodwar to beg. The only source of water keeping them alive is brought in a jerry can from Lodwar by Rebecca’s brother. They drink from the bottle cap to ensure they ration it.

For both Akal and Loro, it’s clear that their familial and social ties have been essential to their ability to migrate – and to survive. While the strength of these kinds of social ties can enable migrants to rebuild their lives, research also shows that the separation of families that often occurs with climate migration takes a significant toll on mental health. 

Susan Akal has not seen her husband now for months. The only way they can communicate is by word of mouth, their messages travelling 250 kilometres through friends and nomadic intermediaries. “This kind of life doesn’t allow loved ones to miss one another,” she says. “I don’t think of him and we don’t miss each other a lot because of the hurt we are experiencing and how occupied we are.” She does not get emotional about the magnitude of her experiences, describing in a matter-of-fact way how the focus on survival has stripped back her emotional life.

“This kind of life doesn’t allow loved ones to miss one another”

susan akal

Akal has also adapted to her new circumstances by changing how she dresses to look more like the people around her, but at the cost of part of her identity. She wears different clothes, and no longer wears her traditional beads which signified both her tribe and her marital status. “The beads are the accessories to us pastoralists. It’s similar to how people in town wear chains, earrings and lipstick. Though people only see this beauty when you’re well-fed,” she tells us.

When Akal arrived in Kalokol, she was focused on finding somewhere to stay and a way to feed her six children. But the work available in Kalokol is limited for women. Social norms dictate they cannot fish themselves, so instead Akal has spent two weeks learning how to cut, gut, clean and dry the fish ready for sale. “This is the only business I can do here,” she says. She found another member of her tribe in the community, who opened up her home to Akal’s family. However, because the house is so close to the lake, water often enters the house when levels rise. Due to this, Akal sleeps outside on a mat to see when the waters are encroaching, so that she can get the early catch from the fishermen. 

Image by Victor Ombogo

‘First responders’ of the climate crisis

Women like Akal are often the “first responders” in climate-linked crises, shouldering huge unpaid care work to look after their family and wider community, according to recent research by ActionAid. Akal has taken on another dependent from the local community — a young girl she found alone when she arrived in Kalokol. After asking around and discovering that her parents had passed away, Akal decided to take care of her as her own child. She discovered the girl has a heart condition, so she takes her to a clinic every month.

Despite such contributions, research shows that policymakers, negotiators and NGOs are failing to recognise womens’ action and agency in climate crises, including during episodes of migration or displacement. This leads to erasure of their voices and needs, says Amiera Sawas, co-author of the ActionAid research, published in 2021.

“If you exclude or ignore the roles women play in climate migration and fall into a narrative arc that solely sees women as vulnerable and needing to be saved, then you won’t consider the solutions they could bring to the table and your solutions will continue to perpetuate patriarchal responses,” she says. “In the longer term, it means that women’s vulnerability is compounded”. Women have to be given their own seat at the decision making table and their own resources.”  

Not too late to act

As large-scale climate migration and displacement becomes increasingly inevitable, experts say that we have to prepare proactively, either by supporting people to adapt to climate change where they are, or by supporting them to move if they wish to. The Climate and Migration Coalition (CMC), an NGO that advocates for the rights of climate migrants, states that this could mean supporting people with money to help with moving costs, training to find new work and making the infrastructure in the locations they move to – most often cities – more climate resilient. 

Himani Upadhyay, a researcher on climate change impacts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, points out that Loro and Akal – and the many others in similar situations – currently have little such agency or support. “If the burden of the adaptation is on the individual, on the women who have undertaken this migration, and not on the institutions or responsible government authorities, then to what extent can we call such a migration ‘adaptation’?” asks Upadhyay. “It’s forced migration if they have no other options.”

At COP27, Global South countries and advocates are pushing for a financial mechanism to be created to support people whose  lives are being upended by the impacts of climate change. “We need a global fund that is internationally recognised under the UN’s climate change framework, to provide finance to poorer countries dealing with the adverse impacts of human induced climate change. Displacement resulting from this is a category of loss and damage and such people need to be helped through this funding,” says Professor Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh and advisor to the Least Developed Countries coalition. 

Although there was some progress on the issue at COP26 in Glasgow, countries from the Global North succeeded in blocking the creation of a new fund for loss and damage as a result of the harm wrought by the climate crisis. The issue is likely to be at the centre of the public debate around COP27. Advocates face two challenges: first to overcome opposition to creating a global mechanism that transfers money to the Global South from the Global North to pay for the impacts of climate change; and second, to have migration recognised as one of those impacts within its framework. 

As important as the UN climate summits are, they’re “not a one stop shop,” says Alex Randall, programme lead at the CMC. “COP27 is definitely important, but it is basically about carbon and money. There are important questions that can’t necessarily be addressed there – it is not a forum that is really geared for thinking about migration rights.” There is currently no global treaty that recognises the rights of those fleeing climate impacts without crossing international borders. The only framework that comes close is the UN’s the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, but even this is not legally binding and does not include the needs of people who are moving because of climate change.  

Some countries are already starting to address these needs independently. As Bangladesh’s overcrowded capital Dhaka struggles to cope with the rise in migration from coastal areas, ICCCAD is working with local governments and NGOs to strengthen the economic capacity of smaller cities to offer climate migrants new jobs. The port city of Mongla is building a new disaster warning system and new infrastructure to protect against rising sea levels and storms. 

But countries in the Global South can only do so much alone, says Huq. “We need to think about how we are going to deal with this crisis before it happens – because it will happen. We need to enable people to move at their own will, rather than them being forced to move as a last resort,” he explains. “The government of Bangladesh – or Kenya – can create projects like this to support people but ultimately poor countries have very limited resources. The world owes us.”

The Kenyan women we spoke to have already felt the decision to move forced upon them, which has uprooted their families, livelihoods and even parts of their identities. Akal admits that the drastic changes in her life are exhausting her. “I don’t have the capacity to miss my husband because this drought has killed his livestock and all he sees in the fields are their bones and corpses which really depresses him. I am struggling too, in terms of providing for my children with food and school supplies. It really takes a toll on me.” After a pause she adds: “I told the neighbour to give my greetings to my husband and to tell him I’m persevering.” 

COP27 will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh and runs from 6 – 18 November, 2022.