(Nairobi, October 15, 2015) – Climate change and regional development projects are threatening the health and livelihood of indigenous peoples in the Turkana region of northwest Kenya, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report and accompanying video were presented to environmental and human rights groups in Nairobi in advance of climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, from October 19 to 23, 2015.
The 96-page report, “There Is No Time Left: Climate Change, Environmental Threats, and Human Rights in Turkana County, Kenya,” highlights the increased burden facing the government of Kenya to ensure access to water, food, health, and security in the Turkana region. The region also presents an example of how climate change, with rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns, disproportionately affects already vulnerable people, especially in countries with limited resources and fragile ecosystems.
“The combination of climate change, large-scale development, and population growth poses an urgent threat to the people of the Turkana region,” said Joseph Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Lake Turkana is in danger of disappearing, and the health and livelihood of the indigenous peoples of the region along with it.”
Between 1967 and 2012, maximum and minimum average temperatures in Turkana County, in Kenya’s northwest corner near the border with Ethiopia, rose between 2 and 3°C (3.6 to 5.4°F), according to data from the meteorological station in Turkana’s capital. Rainfall patterns seem to have changed, with the long rainy season becoming shorter and drier and the short rainy season becoming longer and wetter. Insecurity and conflict in the region are expected to get worse as grazing lands decrease.
At the same time, hydroelectric projects and irrigated sugar plantations in Ethiopia’s lower Omo River Valley threaten to vastly reduce the water levels in Lake Turkana, the world largest desert lake, and the source of livelihood for 300,000 Turkana residents. Some experts forecast that the lake may recede into two small pools, devastating fish stocks.
Turkana County, with a total population of approximately 1.2 million, is among the poorest regions in Kenya. A majority of the residents are pastoralists, who make their living herding cattle and goats, and people who fish in Lake Turkana. The semi-arid region has for generations struggled with cyclical droughts.
People living in Turkana told Human Rights Watch that they faced increased difficulty in accessing water, and that many water sources had dried out, making every day a struggle for survival. Women and girls said that they often had to walk longer distances to dig for water in dry riverbeds. Parents said that their children become sick because they are unable to provide them with sufficient food and safe water for drinking and hygiene.
“How will I survive when my animals have died and the lake has disappeared?” an elderly man who makes his living from his cattle told Human Rights Watch. “How will I survive when the drought sweeps me away and sends me to my grave?”
Addressing climate change, and supporting communities to adapt to its impact, should be an urgent local, national, and international priority, Human Rights Watch said.
The upcoming Bonn climate change negotiations will include discussion of how human rights will be integrated into an international agreement on climate change. Governments will also discuss commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to limit future increases in global temperatures.
This includes the role of higher-income countries, which have contributed the greatest amount of greenhouse gases into the environment, to support lower income nations’ need to adapt to the impact of climate change. The Bonn meeting is the last negotiating session before the summit at the end of the year in Paris, where it is expected that a new international agreement on climate change will be adopted.
The Turkana County and Kenyan governments have acknowledged the impact of climate change and made several constructive steps toward developing a national policy addressing the effects of climate change and development. But the process, including adoption of a climate change law, has been delayed several times. Efforts to support adaptation to climate change need to accelerate and focus on the rights of vulnerable populations, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Kenyan government should develop climate change policies that protect the rights of all its populations, including the most marginalized,” Amon said. “The struggles of the Turkana people are an important reminder for governments around the world that human rights should be a central element of the future Paris climate change agreement.”
Select testimony from Turkana interviews:
“The famine has displaced people. The herd boys who were looking after the livestock have lost everything, now they have nothing to do. We have no choice but to put our hands up and ask for help. Where will we go now? It is death that awaits us.”
– O.L., 46-year-old cattle herder
“During this dry season I go often [to the river] not just once a day, but morning and then later in the evening, and tomorrow again the same thing. The whole village depends on this river alone, both the human and the livestock. Sometime back, when the rain was enough the water [from rains] could last for even four months [in the adjacent river]. But now things have changed, as the wells dry very fast.”
– P.O., a 9-month-pregnant woman who walks 18 kilometers a day for water
“The drought has been affecting both people and animals in recent years. Another one of my children became sick during the previous drought period, and died due to starvation and sickness. We starve during the drought and when the government comes, it helps only a few people.”
– B.C., woman, 28, living near Todonyang, Turkana County