By Matt Burdett, 15 March 2018
On this page, we look at one of two detailed examples of societies with contrasting vulnerability to climate change, focusing on Kenya.
Climate change in Kenya: the problem
Kenya is a Low Income Country according to the World Bank’s classifications. As such, it has relatively low levels of income which reduces the country’s coping capacity, also known as its adaptive capacity. However, it’s not simply that Kenya is relatively poor – Kenya is also vulnerable because of its exposure to climate change and the geographical sensitivity of its youthful population.
Kenya sits within the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which means it has two rainy seasons per year – one relatively short rainy season between October and December, and a longer one between March and May. One major impact of climate change is the potential for this pattern to be disrupted.
Rainfall is declining, with reductions of between 20-40% in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the short term, this has seen a failure of the arrival of seasonal rain, especially the short rainy season. The result has been long term drought, such as in 2014-18. However, this is not felt evenly across the country. Predictions suggest that in the future, rainfall may actually increase in the north by up to 40% (Thornton, 2010). This could cause serious flooding.
- High and low projections of the mean monthly precipitation in Nairobi for 2030, 2060 and 2090, as well as the actual mean monthly precipitation in 2009. Source: Thornton, 2010.
Meanwhile, temperatures in Africa overall have already gone up by about 0.85°C (between 1886 and 2012), and visible effects have already occured – Mount Kenya, the highest mountain in the country, had 18 glaciers in the early twentieth century but now only 11 remain. In addition to overall temperature change, the number of days with exceptionally hot weather have also gone up by 57 (1960-2003) and temperatures in the nights have increased even more with 113 ‘hot nights’ added over the same period (Thornton, 2010). This has occurred disproportionately in the long rainy season, adding to evaporation and the formation of storms.
- Projections of mean monthly high and low temperatures in Nairobi for 2030, 2060 and 2090, as well as the actual mean monthly temperatures for 2009. Source: Thornton, 2010.
About 25% of Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes directly from agriculture, which is very vulnerable to the issue of climate change. About 27% of GDP is added through the industries and service sector that rely on agriculture, which means that over 50% of the Kenyan economy is in some way dependent on agriculture. Beyond purely economic terms, it is also vital for the poorest people in Kenya: over 80% of the rural population rely on agriculture (UNDP, 2017).
Agriculture is especially sensitive to climate change because crops rely on good weather to grow. The more frequent drought is causing the cycle of food shortages to speed up: severe shortages used to occur every 20 years (1964-1984), then 12 years (1984-1996), then two years (2004-2006) and have recently reached the point where food shortages occur annually (UNDP, 2017). In the drought of 2014-18, coastal production of maize was reduced by up to 99% (ReliefWeb, 2018).
The future of climate in Africa is not certain. Models suggest at least a 1.5°C rise by the end of the century and possibly up to 5°C (Thornton, 2010). A 2°C could wipe out most of the potential for growing tea (a major export crop) and take away the employment of over three million people (UNDP, 2017).
Kenya’s population is youthful, and increasingly city based. Some of the world’s largest squatter settlements are in Kenya, such as Kibera in Nairobi. Kibera is a massive concentration of 250,000 of the world’s poorest people, of which (APHRC, 2014):
- 90% have no right of abode (they don’t legally own or rent their home)
- Most live in an average house size of 3.6 x 3.6 metres, sleeping up to 8 people on the mud floor
- Only 20% have access to electricity
- 50% are unemployed
Kenya also struggles with climate-sensitive diseases, including malaria. Malaria is an important climate-related disease because it is passed from person to person by mosquitos, which breed in pools of water (which are often left behind after heavy rainfall and flooding), and thrive in hotter climates. The predicted impacts of climate change in Kenya threatens to provide mosquitos with better breeding conditions, thus increasing the spread of malaria.
APHRC [African Population and Health Research Center], 2014. Population and Health Dynamics in Nairobi’s Informal Settlements: Report of the Nairobi Cross-sectional Slums Survey. Via http://www.kibera.org.uk/facts-info/ Accessed 14 March 2018.
ReliefWeb, 2018. Kenya: Drought – 2014-18. https://reliefweb.int/disaster/dr-2014-000131-ken Accessed 14 March 2018.
Thornton, 2010. Climate Change in Kenya: Focus on Children. Published by UNICEF.
https://www.unicef.org.uk/publications/climate-change-in-kenya-focus-on-children/ Accessed 12 March 2018.
UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], n.d.a. In-depth. http://www.ke.undp.org/content/kenya/en/home/ourwork/environmentandenergy/in_depth.html Accessed 12 March 2018.
Case study: Climate vulnerability in Kenya: Learning activities
- Describe the climate of Kenya. 
- Using statistical evidence, outline how the climate is likely to change in the future. 
- Describe the importance of agriculture to the Kenyan economy. 
- Outline the potential impacts to agriculture of climate change. 
Complete the first two boxes of this table:
Climate change predictions
Potential problems of climate change
© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.
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