Kenya's Farmers Struggle with Weather Changes

Weather patterns in Kenya are far different than they were a generation ago. There's less snow on the mountaintops, lakes are much lower, and the rainy season has been arriving late. And when the rain finally comes, it falls too hard and fast and sweeps away the precious topsoil that farmers need to plant their harvests.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. This past week in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change agreed to a review on the Kyoto Treaty on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Ministers also agreed to modest plans to help Africa adapt to further climate change in the future. The conference unfolded against the backdrop of what is shaping up to be an environmental emergency in Kenya. That nation's great lakes are drying up. The coastline is flooding and the rainy season has all the wrong raindrops. NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Like many illnesses, climate change is often detected first when it has already reached an advanced stage. The patient, i.e., the Earth, first adapts to changes in the natural course of weather patterns. Flowers bloom early or late. Animals walk a little farther for water or food. And one day, everybody wakes up and something big is missing, like the wedge of a polar ice cap or an entire species, or snow on the top of Mount Kenya. Here in Nairobi, Evo Debear(ph), the United Nations environmental chief, tried to lay out climate change recently to those Kenyans who might still have their doubts.

Mr. EVO DEBEAR (United Nations Official): I think I would ask the person in Turkana or Marsabit, have you noticed that rain patterns are shifting and that you're getting a lot less rain then you used to when you were young? I think I would ask a person living at the foot of Mount Kenya to look up and say do you see the snow and the ice receding? I think I would ask a person living in Mombassa, have you noticed that you're getting more and more flooding in your area? And I think all three would answer me: yes.

THOMPKINS: Or he might ask them to head to Lake Nyvasa(ph), about an hour and a half northwest of Nairobi. This is in the Rift Valley provenience over an emerald green landscape of vegetables, fruits, flowers and livestock. Lake Nyvasa is the jewel in the water system that keeps Nairobi in water. Trouble is, Lake Nyvasa is drying up.

Mr. ROBERT DETAY(ph) (World Wildlife Fund): The first time when I came to this lake I was (unintelligible) I'm now approaching my fifty years - plus. And the lake at that time was higher than what I'm seeing now.

THOMPKINS: Robert Detay is a project leader for the conservationist group World Wildlife Fund. He's been studying the lake since the early 1990's. He and others say that over the past 30 years there's been a lot less rain here. By some accounts, 60 percent less.

MS. SARA HIGGINS: Really, we're getting dry years now that we used not to get.

THOMPKINS: That's Sara Higgins, and she's been keeping and commissioning meticulous records on the lake. She and her husband raise wheat, flowers and cattle nearby. They live on the kind of spread that brings to mind novels like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or the Laura Ingles Wilder series, when a good harvest would mean extra ribbons for the girls hair and Christmas presents all around. There are eight foot tall yellow poinsettias here and a crowd of daisies at their heels, Jersey cows low in a field nearby that is the color of green papaya. In better days, that field used to be the floor of Lake Nayvasa.

Ms. HIGGINS: This lake has dried up totally. Totally. For long periods of time. Now, that's without the interference of man. So now with the interference of man and man's needs for water, this doesn't have much hope of staying full for too long.

THOMPKINS: Local interference comes by way of rampant tree cutting, farming too close to the edge of the lake and the liberal use of fertilizers in commercial flower cultivation. It's difficult for people here to break the habits on which they've come to rely. Peter O'Mainey is a climate scientist for the Kenya Meteorological Department. He's been studying the temperature and weather in this area from 1961 to 2004. He warns that rain patterns have become too erratic and crops are suffering. But O'Mainey, who is 41 years old, might as well be the boy who cried wolf to his father. He's a farmer from western Kenya near Lake Victoria, just east of Uganda. His father doesn't check the weather report to know when to plant his seeds.

Mr. PETER O'MAINEY (Climate Scientist): My father is very keen. He wakes up early, around dawn time, and when he sees lightening on the other side of Uganda, he knows that the rains are just about to start. He will go planting whether you tell him it is not going to rain or not. At the end of it, you prove him right.

THOMPKINS: In these parts, rain has become as complicated as a coffee order at Starbucks. Kenya's short rainy season generally runs from October through December, but this year the rains began two weeks late and when they did come, they came too fast and too hard. In northeastern Kenya, an area that has been punished by drought, someone drowned under torrential rain last weekend. In the city of Mombassa on the Indian Ocean, rain has killed at least 10 people and displaced 60,000. It rains so hard in Nairobi these days that all you can hear is the rain.

But the natural fact about rain is that it is most powerful when it floats to the ground, like autumn leaves, gently. That's a fact on which climate scientists like O'Mainey and farmers like his father can agree. So can the great defender of the forest, Kenya's Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.

Ms. WANGARI MAATHAI (Nobel Laureate): Drizzling rain, drizzling rain is what we call it. The kind of rain we used to say when I was growing up that unless you are a lazy person you do go home and say that it is raining. It's drizzling, and you work because the ground is nice and wet and the rains are falling down very gently.

THOMPKINS: Gentle rain provides the kind of water that hangs around for a while. At Lake Nyvasa, in the countryside, in the forest, in the city. It doesn't rush off, taking the topsoil with it. It sounds like this.

(Soundbite of rain)

THOMPKINS: Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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