Desperate for Water, Communities in Kenya’s Rural Areas Forced to Move  

The East and Horn of Africa is in the grip of the worst drought in decades – parching landscapes, killing livestock and creating a humanitarian crisis.  

The impact of climate change on the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) in the region – primarily in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia – has been severe. Thousands of families are being forced to leave their homes in search of food, water and pasture, heightening pressure on already limited natural resources. The drought has also increased the risk of inter-communal conflict as farming communities and pastoralist communities are forced to share dwindling supplies of water.  

The region has experienced climate-induced crises for decades and it is widely known that extreme weather, along with recurring droughts, will continue to increase in both frequency and intensity. This is particularly worrying for a regional population that is predominantly reliant upon natural resources. 

Susan Musyoki told IOM she has been forced to do menial jobs at construction sites to feed her family. Inadequate rains have impacted the economic viability of her farm. Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IOM 2022

The rural roads of Tana River in Kenya’s coastal region are dotted with drying carcasses of dead animals. The grazing fields are dusty and many of the water pans, which collect and store rainwater, are drying up. Riverbeds have turned into footpaths. Along the road, a pastoralist is moving with his cattle. He has travelled a long distance in search of water and pasture. At one water pan, serving people as far as 30 kilometers away, community members are moving away dead livestock to avoid contaminating their only source of water.  

This is a place ravaged by a climate crisis that many residents understand nothing about.  

“It was never like this before. We do not know what is going on. Rains are not there. Our animals are dying and getting water is not easy anymore,” said Abaloni Barissa, one of the pastoralists in Tana River. “I have been here for 48 years and never seen a drought like the one we have experienced now. Everything dried up. Water dried up; trees dried up. Everything. Our animals became useless to us because you cannot even sell them. They just died.”  

Over the past four years, the area has been decimated by lack of rain. Pastureland and water points ran dry and many pastoralists lost thousands of livestock, their only source of livelihood. Thousands of acres of crops were destroyed, and in Kenya alone, 1.4 million livestock died in the final part of last year as a result of drought. 

Some pastoralists have lost up to 300 heads of cattle due to drought. For many, this is their entire livelihood. Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IOM 2022

Mohammed, a pastoralist in the area who lost over 300 heads of cattle, says it is the longest drought he has witnessed in his lifetime. “Every family here has lost livestock. Some have lost more than others. We are left with nothing. Even those that remain cannot help us. You can see they are too weak,” says Mohammed.    

While residents of Tana River like Mohammed have always experienced cyclical drought, the phenomenon is getting worse. At the center of it is a worsening climate crisis. Many of the people in the affected communities depend on rainfall for their farmlands and for livestock. Today they are grappling with the effects of three consecutive failed rainy seasons and the severe water shortage.  

As a result, Mohammed and his community are calling for durable solutions to the perennial water crisis that has gripped many pastoralist communities. In Kenya, the government is stepping in to provide feed supplements to pastoralists to save their only source of livelihood: livestock. This, however, is not enough. 

Pastoralists are forced to walk longer distances in search of water and pasture for their livestock as such resources are increasingly dwindling. Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IOM 2022

Jacob Kazungu is a resident of Kilifi County in Kenya’s coastal region. His biggest source of income is farming but the produce has been dwindling over the years.  

“I’m a farmer and mostly plant maize and okra. I have a family with five children, and they are all in school. As a farmer, life has not been easy due to the scarcity of rains. When you compare with two years ago, things are getting worse.” 

Saumu Abdalla, a mother of four, told the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that the lack of water is disproportionately affecting women. 

“The dry season brings with it a lot of challenges. People have to walk long distances in search of water. It affects our health, especially women and girls,” she said.  

As climate change continues to impact communities, more attention should be focused on optimizing groundwater resources. Utilizing groundwater sustainably is critical to address water security and build resilience to future shocks. 

Proper management of groundwater sources is critical in ensuring that communities have access to clean and safe water in a sustainable manner. Photo: Kenneth Odiwuor/IOM 2022

Groundwater is critical to climate change adaptation in the ASALs and beyond. It provides almost half of all drinking water worldwide, about 40 per cent of water for irrigated agriculture and about a third of water required for industry. It sustains ecosystems, maintains the baseflow of rivers and prevents land subsidence and seawater intrusion.  

“We cannot only rely on rainfall because it is not enough. The amount of rainfall we are receiving has been declining over the years. We want boreholes so we can have a constant supply of water,” Jilo, another pastoralist said. 

Rohba Gocha, a local administrator in Asah location in Tana River, told IOM while the provision of water pans and boreholes is critical in alleviating water scarcity, communities should be involved in their management for sustainability. 

“Without fencing the water pans and the dam, you find animals and the community share the same water pan. Animals will dirty the water, and this is a health risk to the community. They also get filled up with silt very easily and then in no time, the capacity of the dam or the water pan reduces significantly. This is not sustainable,” he said.  

IOM’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) initiatives throughout the East and Horn of Africa have included the construction and rehabilitation of boreholes and wells, water trucking, surface water treatment systems, latrine construction, hygiene promotion campaigns, and distribution of hygiene kits, among others. IOM is also working with communities and governments across the region to protect water resources.  

The Organization is committed to guaranteeing inclusion and fighting inequalities that principally affect women, girls, disabled people, refugees, and internally displaced people – who are more often the poorest and the most marginalized when it comes to their basic human rights to water. They should never be left behind.  

In areas like Asah where Gocha is the administrator, the community is playing an active role in trying to protect groundwater sources and using them sustainably. 

“They have realized their lives and those of their animals depend on it.”  

For more information, contact Kenneth Odiwuor, Communications and Public Information Officer at IOM Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa, Email:, Tel: +254 4221119 

SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
SDG 13 - Climate Action