Dr. Richard Leakey: How Climate Change Affects East Africa
How is climate change beginning to affect Kenya and East Africa as a whole?
There is a huge gap in our knowledge on the impact of climate change in East Africa. At the moment, very little research is being done that gives us a clear picture on the modelling of impacts in this sub-region on climate change. The general feeling is that we will see more dramatic droughts and more dramatic precipitation. Whether this will fall into the cycles we have grown accustomed to, or whether the monsoonal changes that will result in increased warming of the Indian Ocean will give us a totally different weather pattern, we don’t know. The expectation, however, is that some areas in Kenya will get more rain and other areas will get less rain on average and the periods of no rain may be extended and longer while the degree of rainfall may increase to the point where flooding, mudslides and that sort of a thing become a serious issue.
One of the things that is recognised and now fully understood is that the melting snows or ice in the Antarctic is going to affect currents and the increased temperature on the ocean surface is going to bring changes in the direction of the monsoons which do not have to shift very far to take more or less rain in a certain direction.
Have you noticed any drastic changes to the environment in the Turkana Basin over the years that you have been working there?
We know from accurate geological and archaeological records that for the past 8000 years, Lake Turkana has received 95% of its water from the Ethiopian Highlands down the Omo River. 8000/7000 years ago, Lake Turkana was about 300 ft higher than it is today. The drop in the level of is a direct correlation of less rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands.
When I first went to work in Lake Turkana in the late 60’s, the lake level was about 50 to 60 feet higher than it is today. There is no major hydroelectric dams or major irrigation schemes on the Omo River or in the Ethiopian Highlands so I believe this has to reflect changing weather patterns. Whether the weather patterns are changing because of human impact or whether it is changing because of climate change on a larger scale is not clear. But the lake level in Turkana is directly related to the quantity of rainfall falling in the Ethiopian Highlands.
What do you think is the most important factor to immediately address in terms of tackling climate change?
Population growth is as far as I am concerned is probably the single most worrying factor for the planet. We can look at a farm, we can look at a national park – we can say the carrying capacity of that area is “x”. If we look at the planet, the carrying capacity for our planet has been exceeded. This planet has too many people on it. How we address this I don’t know. But I am certain if we don’t address it, many of the good efforts being made to cut carbon dioxide emissions and to find alternative sources of energy won’t have the desired effect. It has got to be linked and conceptualised in a way that stabilises the human population and ultimately brings the numbers down.
It is only if you bring numbers down that we will be able to find a way for resource utilisation per capita to increase. It is the only way you are going to deal with poverty and unless you deal with poverty, the situation can only spiral downwards. This is a massive problem and the solutions are not simply condoms versus draconian measures such as one child per family. It has to be looked at in different countries in different ways. I think there has to be a commitment everywhere to slow and stop population growth. I do believe that we have been set back a long way by the opposition to family planning that is being shown by some of the religious groups and by some of the more conservative governments such as the current US administration.
What can we do as a country and regionally?
As to what Kenya can do, I would urge our researchers to look back at old records and try to draw up some picture of whether there are discernible trends. Are there are any indications that give us insight into sea level change? There is also bound to be a lot of anecdotal evidence from farmers and fishermen about seasons and when people plant crops. We need to be accumulating a great deal more local information. Looking at what happens in America, Europe or Australia isn’t going to give us the planning capacity that we need.
I believe we should also be addressing governance. We should be looking to the government to put in rules that focus on a number of things. First of all, planning for natural disasters that I think will begin to increase in frequency both from the sea with typhoons or cyclones; ocean surges; high tides and rising sea levels.
We also need to look into our planning rules such as where people are allowed to build or whether people should be clearing steep slopes in valleys that could lead to landslides. We should certainly be thinking about conservation of water; we should be thinking very carefully about how much water we can afford to waste. Can put water back into the aquifer as they do in Australia? I think we need to start thinking about government intervention in irrigation systems and the water off-take levels. We have some rules that can be improved upon as we are wasting so much water. Water harvesting is of particularly critical importance.
Water is currently such a scarce source for the majority of Kenyans. How are authorities to prepare for such drastic measures when we are already in such dire straits?
Authorities must prepare for climate change. Water is fundamental. This has to take into account not only the harvesting of water but also the recycling of water and adaptation of technologies that don’t lead to waste. Storm water, for example, could be harvested.
There are a number of things that can be done in the urban areas that would improve our life. Many of our urban water systems were put in place in the 50s and 60s. Most of the supplies are losing 50 to 70% to leakages. If you go to Lamu, the last official study suggested that 70% of the water from rain fed wells was simply leaking out of broken pipes.
If you drive along the highways in Nairobi where there are water pipes on the side, you will see many flower nurseries where people are planting flowers to sell. Their source of water is broken pipes – there are no springs on the road, those are just broken water systems. It is all over the country. We should fix these things. There is a lot we can do. But it will take time and it will take money and it needed to have started years ago.
We also need to participate in some of the global studies to give us a better indication on the likelihood of crop failure particularly how it would impact on small scale farmers. These are subsistence people who can move from a meagre existence to famine in a relatively small period of time. So I think there are a number of things that we could be doing to recognise that over the next fifty years, the Kenya we know will not be here. It would have changed very dramatically in terms of when the rain falls, how much falls, where people live, how people live, what they eat, how they grow their crops.
There are so many global movements that focus on reducing our carbon footprints. Do you think this is something that we should be concerned with in our region and in what particular area of life?
Although our output of carbon dioxide from transportation is relatively small, this is no reason not to be more serious about our carbon dioxide emissions. Much more should be done by urban authorities to insist on more efficient transportation such as vehicles that have better emission standards. If public transport is sufficiently reliable, many of us would not have to drive our cars to work. The condition of our roads and the fact that so many cars use the roads carrying only one or two people can all be avoided. This should be addressed. We could have commuter trains that carry large numbers in whom at the moment, travel in vehicles that only seat 14 people. This is highly inefficient.
We have to recognise that while we may not be a significant contributor to the global carbon dioxide totals; our small contribution of fumes that we are pumping into the air is taking its toll. In the mornings when there is no wind, you can see the brown, yellow smog over the city. This is going into our lungs and it is bound to have an effect over the long term. I don’t know what the statistics are but I know from conversations that I have had with medical authorities indicate that respiratory diseases are on the increase in this country.
The question of air transport and what it is going to do – well, we are already beginning to see questions as to whether countries that fly horticultural produce to markets across the world are in fact providing organic produce. The European markets may not accept six flights a night out of Nairobi airport with flowers and green beans. I think the destination markets are going to get tougher and tougher on nations such as ours.
What are your thoughts about the north-south carbon trading initiatives?
Carbon dioxide trading is an interesting idea and is certainly one that hasn’t been fully explored in Kenya. I think people should get a credit for retaining indigenous forest rather than simply being rewarded for replanting forests that they have cut down. I think that there are a lot of changes in the International Convention on what you can trade and how you can do it but I would think that biodiversity, indigenous forests as well as plantation forests could all lend themselves to development efforts in countries such as Kenya. We need to become much more familiar with what is possible and what can be done and I think you could see much of the reforestation necessary in this country for our timber needs, fuel and paper being financed through international funds. Sadly, many of us don’t have the capacity to access such schemes.
We in Kenya need to be conscious of the need for energy but rather than go the easy route and opt for dirty energy, we should start to demand that investors come here with the same criteria for development that exists in their own countries. There is no reason why foreign investors should make us continue to operate below standards in terms of emissions while they have been forced to clean up at home. But this takes a brave government; it takes a government that sees beyond its own lifetime. This is an institutional change that we have not seen here. It is where institutions and laws are supposed to operate irrespective of the party in power. This is something we certainly look forward to.
How do you realistically see us instilling such values as a nation when most people are so desperate to meet their daily needs?
The first issue is that there are far too many of us that are too poor. The vast majority of people aspire to a better standard of living and for them to have a better standard of living; they are going to have to have better access to resources. Whilst those resources are readily available, the wastage of those resources is not justified. What people need is justified but what people discard and waste and throw away is not. That is what people have to address.
We are certainly different from California, or France or Australia. Our electorate is generally not well informed. They are not likely to put environmental issues on the ballot. This comes later. By the same token, because our electorate are relatively straight forward, they will take all sorts of medicine given by leaders they trust. We have men and women who have had enough education to understand some of the dimensions of these problems and some of the relationships between problems and solutions and legislation. The Kenyan public would go along with a lot of measures without necessarily having to initiate it themselves. In a sense the government would say this is better for you. What worries me are long term events. For example, climate change and the impact it will have is simply not been given the attention it deserves by our leaders.
The question of whether or not the capacity of humans who are adaptive and clearly have shown remarkable abilities to live with a degrading environment, will get us through, is a question with little meaning. The fact is that the density of the human population on the planet and the needs of that population exceed the realistic resources that the planet can provide. If for example, we are living at the moment in Kenya with an average of 10-15 litres of water consumption per person per day (it is probably slightly less), but we are aspiring to a life that similar to the US where 200 litres a day is normal. Clearly the world has not got that kind of water to cope with such a demand on a global scale.
If in the context of where we are today, is there time?
Well, planet earth isn’t going to self destruct. What happens with planet earth is that species come, species go; extinctions happen, new species appear. It is too late now to prevent massive changes in the next 50 years. It is not too late to do things that will have positive effects a hundred years from now. If we are selfish, we will leave the planet in worse condition for those to come. If we are selfless then we will recognise that our older generation and the one before it left us in a mess which we now can’t get out of but we certainly can make sure that successive generations inhabit a world that is gradually recovering. That’s our choice.
I would also say that there this is a tendency in most parts of the world, and I don’t think it is any different in Kenya to say that it is up to God. If you leave it up to God, it is not going to do very well. It is not up to God: it is up to us. I don’t believe that if there is a God, God would say, destroy the planet the way you are doing. I think that is nonsense. If you are religious, then remember that God is generally thought to help those that help themselves.
Related: Global Warming by the Numbers