Tackling drought in arid lands through devolved disaster risk management

September 25, 2019

Local men shelter from the sweltering heat while enjoying a session of a traditional board game as they wait for the sun to go down, to allow them to go about their business. Photo: Allan Gichigi/UNDP Kenya

Nestled in Kenya’s North-West corner and bordering Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, Turkana is a land of geographic extremes. Kenya’s largest County is not only one of its hottest, but also one of its most arid: daytime temperatures in the capital Lodwar hover around 35⁰C, with virtually no rainfall for the majority of the year.[1]The dry heat is intense, and during the day locals in towns and rural areas alike clamour for shade to escape it.

Although home to the expansive Lake Turkana, the County suffers an acute lack of fresh water and as a result of its harsh climate, is also prone to drought — a feature exacerbated by the harmful effects of climate change. Just earlier this year an estimated 800,000 people in the County faced food shortages due to drought and to compound the damage inflicted, flash floods followed when the rains finally came.

Turkana County boasts of vast resources of underground waters, discovered in 2013, which could supply Kenya with adequate water for 70 years, access to clean water remains a challenge with the majority relying on boreholes or water trucks for domestic water supply. Photo: Allan Gichigi/UNDP Kenya

“Access to water is a big problem here… we have to transport it from Lodwar to be pumped into our tanks.” — Jeremia Akolom, Counsellor, Lorugum Sub-County Hospital

For the County’s health system this presents a real challenge, as the mostly rural pastoralist population often live far from health facilities, and admissions rapidly increase as drought worsens. In Loima Sub-County at Lorugum Sub-County Hospital, a chart clearly shows this trend, with a spike in admissions during the drought response coinciding with a rise in fevers and respiratory tract infections, placing considerable strain on the hospital’s limited resources.

“Water lasts 2–3 weeks in good times. Locally, the water is salty — that’s the issue.” – Benjamin Mogire, Anaesthetist, Lorugum Sub-County Hospital

A chart on the wall at Lorugum Sub-County Hospital illustrates the co-relation between heightened drought and increase in hospital admissions for fevers and respiratory tract infections. Photo: Nicholas Wilson/UNDP Kenya

In Loima, access to water is limited at the best of times: the Sub-County sits on a saline aquifer which is not potable, so the tanks at the hospital in Lorugum have to be refilled by delivery. Two health workers at the hospital, Jeremia Akolom and Benjamin Mogire, explain that running a hospital is a water intensive process, with multiple needs including to maintain a sanitary environment, to keep equipment sterile and to support recovering patients.

The local pastoralists, however, must roam in search of water and pasture for their livestock, which in times of drought can lead to conflict as different communities compete for scarce resources. This dynamic is complicated further by the significant numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in Loima Sub-County and Turkana more widely, having fled clashes such as tribal conflicts and election violence, and who also require access to fresh water.[2]

Josephat Lotwel of National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) displays a copy of the Turkana County Hazard Atlas, which acts as a reference resource for County officials and development partners as a mechanism of eliminating possible risks. Photo: Nicholas Wilson/UNDP Kenya

“The history of drought in this County, in the 1940s and 1950s, happened every 10 years — because of climate change this timeframe has been reducing — first 8 or 7 years, later 5 years, and now every 2 years.” – Josephat Lotwel, NDMA

By providing funding and specialist technical assistance, UNDP collaborated with the County Directorate of Disaster Management and the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) to produce the Turkana County Hazard Atlas, an open-source meteorological and topographical analysis of hazards in the County. The Hazard Atlas is intended to serve as a reference guide to both the County Government and development partners so that hazards are endogenized in the planning of future projects, eliminating preventable risks and potentially saving lives.

Hazard Atlases form part of the contextual analysis, which informs development agenda and projects. So far, UNDP has supported eight counties to develop Hazard Atlases. Photo: Nicholas Wilson/UNDP Kenya

"We’ve identified the big rivers in the County and how likely they are to flood. Projects under the agricultural sector have been enhanced in terms of space, they’re increasing the arable acreage, and more land’s being opened to enhance food security.” – Benedict Mukoo, County Directorate of Disaster Management

The Hazard Atlas has formed part of the analysis for development projects of all kinds in Turkana and will provide a platform for large-scale projects to improve access to fresh water and combat drought more permanently. Irrigation projects to promote food security have been one of the notable success stories of recent times.

As the effects of climate change worsen over the coming years and decades, exploring aquifers and building dams will be essential tools for supporting life in Turkana through water management. A direct result of the studies conducted during hazard mapping is that plans for several major projects are currently seen as potentially viable — which could one day provide the people of Lorugum, Loima and the rest of Turkana the ready access to water they need.




UNDP has supported drought management in Turkana County through the Integrated Support Programme to the Devolution Process (ISPDP) in Kenya, which aims to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the devolution process and to give grassroots stakeholders a voice in the delivery of services by the devolved governments. ISPDP is a joint project run by UNDP Kenya (with other partners including UN Women) and implemented by the Ministry for Devolution and Planning. The project is principally funded by the governments of the United Kingdom through DFID, the United States through USAID, Sweden through SIDA and the Royal Government of the Kingdom of Norway through the Norwegian Embassy in Kenya.

Disclaimer: This story is based on first person reports and interviews conducted during a visit to Turkana County in July 2019. The opinions expressed in this story are solely those of the interviewed individuals and do not necessarily represent the views of affiliated donors or organisations.