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For East Africa’s pastoralists, climate change already fueling violence, hunger

For East Africa’s pastoralists, climate change already fueling violence, hunger

In 2008 and 2009, a severe drought swept through much of Kenya and Tanzania. Nomadic herders, or pastoralists, such as the Maasai people in Tanzania, pushed south in search of greener expanses, bringing tens of thousands of cattle with them.

What happened next was largely unprecedented: Locals from a region of Tanzania called Manyara, who were also Maasai, evicted the newcomers, beating some so badly they ended up in the hospital.

Terrence McCabe, professor of anthropology at CU Boulder, has lived and worked with pastoralist groups in the region for more than 30 years. For him, that sudden and shocking violence was a symbol of a changing East Africa—a warning sign that people such as the Maasai may not be able to move across the landscape as freely as they used to. Survey results from the last two years in central Kenya show that life for pastoralist peoples may be getting even worse. Herders are struggling to feed their families in the midst of a pandemic, a historic locust invasion and drought after drought.

“Traditionally, pastoralists have been able to deal with uncertainty in their environment through mobility,” said McCabe. “The less mobile you are, the less able you are to cope with a changing climate.”

What became known as the “Manyara drought” also might look like a textbook case of something scientists have worried about for years: Could warming temperatures around the world push already-vulnerable people toward armed conflict?

East Africa is undoubtedly getting hotter. A report from the World Meteorological Organization, for example, suggests Mount Kenya, Africa’s second tallest peak at 17,000 feet, might lose all of its glaciers to melting by the 2030s. Those soaring heat waves will likely deliver more of the kinds of drought that forced the Maasai from their homes in 2008.


For centuries, East Africa peoples like the Maasai and Turkana have survived by herding cattle, moving these animals across miles of wide-open grasslands to keep them fed. Now, worsening droughts and a host of other challenges are threatening that nomadic existence.
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