Iain Overton reports from Kenya’s Masai region, where a fifth year of drought is devastating lives and livestock

The men of the Masai village of Tipilit, a collection of twenty mud huts standing in the dry lands that encroach upon the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, greet their visitors with a haunting song that rises and deepens in the evening sun. Their polyphonic rhythm is arresting and sinuous, but also wields a hidden sadness. These songs are usually sung during the times of rain. And this year, those rains may never come.

On Thursday, 400 km away in Mombasa on the Kenyan coast, a meeting of climate experts and sectoral stakeholders announced the dire prediction that millions of Africans may never again get the rains they so desperately need.

The 62nd Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum (GHACOF) ended its three-day session with the words: “we have never seen anything like this – five seasons of drought”.

“You should even wonder if you can call it a rainfall season,” the committee concluded. It “will be devastating” for countless numbers of East Africans living through the longest drought in decades.

A joint statement by other metrological partners, including the UK Met Office, in May of this year had predicted the October-December 2022 rainy season could fail. Now, that forecast has been confirmed.

This news will be devastating to vast swathes of communities in the Horn of Africa facing the threat of starvation following four consecutive failed rainy seasons in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. It is a climatic event not seen in at least 40 years.

Jonathan Kanka, the Tiplit villager leader, knows how heavy such news will be felt.

“I do not know if my people will be able to survive another season without rain,” he told Byline Times.  He points out the stretched skin of his lean cattle, rib-bones protruding. Walking skeletons in the dust. 

Theirs seems a slow death.

A Masai man. Photo: Iain Overton

A Frightening Future

The last few years have been drier than any Kanka could remember. October 2020, March 2021, October 2021 and March 2022 – the seasons all brought heavy clouds but no drops. The March 2022 rainy season was the driest on record in the last 70 years. 

No respite is in sight.

The devastation this drought will bring cannot be under-estimated. Already across the Horn of Africa, more than 20 million people wake each day not knowing where food will be found. Their animals, too, face starvation – almost nine million livestock have died across the region.

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The drought, local conflict, the impact of COVID-19 and the invasion of Ukraine have all spiked food prices in many areas. The UN reports a 30% jump in food costs threatening people across Africa and the Middle East. More than 16 million people in the Greater Horn cannot access enough water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. Water-borne infections and diseases are the invariable companions to this endless dry.

A lack of co-ordination, political prioritisation, investment and media interest were all cited in GHACOF as concerning and why the region is unprepared for what seems an encroaching nightmare.

Dr Stefan Lines, International Seasonal Scientist at the UK MET office, also told Byline Times that the water shortage will bring its own reverberating challenges. Difficulties in planting crops, perilous conditions for livestock, and lower energy outputs from areas reliant on hydropower will have their own knock-on effects.

Lines does offer a sliver of hope. “The skill in seasonal forecasting is typically much poorer than in weather forecasting”, he said. “There might be a chance of either normal or perhaps above normal rainfall.” But even he does not sound convinced.

As a lack of water blights some parts, others have seen a deluge. At least 77 people have been reported killed in flooding in parts of Sudan since the beginning of May, as torrential rain has engulfed the country.

It is not just Africa that is facing seemingly unprecedented changes in rainfall. Images of the Yangtse, the world’s third largest river, show huge sections as dry river-bed while other parts of China are witnessing unprecedented heat waves. The Colorado and Danube rivers have shown marked declines in water levels and Europe’s drought is said to be the worst in 500 years. 

Elephants gather at the watering hole. Photo: Iain Overton

What this means for billions of people worldwide is uncertain.

What is clear is that in places such as Amboseli, the landscape reveals the harm.

Everywhere dust devils, gyres of sand caught in rising winds, pirouette on the horizon. Their dance feels like a swan song to the land.

Elephants shift languidly, looking for bore-holes to slack their undying thirst. This, one of the great plains of Africa, seems like tinder ready for the flame.

“When the rain comes, this whole area is green,” Chief Kanka says, levelling his arm across the sandy horizon.  “But now…”. His voice fails.

“Tsk,” he says, and he stares down at the ground.

His words, like the rain, are gone. 

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