Climate Change and Violent Conflict in Kenyan Pastoral Lands: UN Sustainable Development Goals Present a Way Forward

7 December 2017 Daniel Pearson, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • An increase in violent conflict between the Turkana and Pokot pastoral groups is associated with climate change.
  • An increase in rainfall variability and drought are the main associated climatic changes.
  • Innovation and creativity is needed to help the Turkana region and Kenya at large implement sustainable growth.
  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals should feature as part of these future solutions.


The Turkana region in north-west Kenya is a hot, dry and arid landscape for most of the year. Pastoralism is the most viable livelihood stream in the region, and the two main pastoral groups are the Turkana and Pokot. For centuries, these two groups have thrived in this manner, sporadically engaging in violent conflict, mainly in the form of livestock raiding. In more recent years, however, climate change has multiplied the threat of certain factors that are associated with a rise in conflict between the pastoral groups. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, however, could feature as part of the long-term solution to counter this threat.


Violent conflict between the Turkana and Pokot is not a new phenomenon. Livestock raiding, which often led to violence, has occurred between these and other pastoralist groups for centuries. There are a number of reasons that could explain why this type of violence is increasing among these societies. Colonial rule and the subsequent reduction in pastoral land, longstanding cultural traditions and ethnic rivalries, the influx of modern weapons and political instability among other factors, partly explain this conflict. Another, more recent factor that characterises this ongoing conflict is increased resource scarcity and the attempts of pastoral communities to secure natural resources vital to sustaining their livelihoods, namely water, pasture and livestock. Although there are a myriad of factors that contribute to this conflict, the central aim of this analysis is to evaluate the extent to which climate change affects the availability of these natural resources, and how this in turn contributes to violent conflict.

North-western Kenya (Turkana region) is an area of arid and semi-arid lands, Kenya experiences annual rainfall of between 200-600mm, with the Turkana region generally receiving less than the national average. It is a region that is characterised by socio-economic marginalisation and poverty. The region also suffers from high exposure to the effects of climate change and medium vulnerability to these effects, which work to increase climate-induced resource scarcity. With the pastoral livelihood placing a high demand on land and water, it is a life that is extremely susceptible to these climatic effects and changes. An increase in the incidence of drought is perhaps the most significant and consequential of these long-term climatic changes for the region. Droughts have increased in frequency from one in every ten years in the 1960s and 1970s to one in every five years in the 1990s, and they are only becoming less predictable and more severe. Pastoralists’ livelihoods are closely correlated with rainfall patterns, and an increase in frequency and severity of droughts reduces their ability to depend and survive on these natural resources. Droughts are associated with a general deterioration of livestock, with increases in disease and starvation, which can have adverse effects on the livestock market sometimes leading to market collapse. The increase in livestock deterioration and the increasing resource scarcity in the region can be largely attributed to climate change. This is where the link between resource scarcity and increasing conflicts is said to occur.

Another school of thought, however, suggests that an increase in conflict in Kenyan pastoral lands is caused by resource abundance rather than scarcity. When the rains arrive there is a relative increase in resources, thus fuelling an increase in cattle raiding and violent conflict. In a study of pastoral communities mainly residing in the Marsabit district, which is situated adjacent to the Turkana region, researchers analysed rainfall patterns and instances of cattle raiding over a period of more than 30 years. By comparing violence in periods of wet years against dry years, they could conclude that cattle raiding and other related violence increases during wet periods. According to the study, competing pastoral communities use communal processes and other local governing institutions to work together, compromise and share scarce resources during times of drought. This is seen as a less attractive option during times of resource abundance, however, when it is easier to engage in livestock raiding and theft.

Climate change is a common factor in both explanations of pastoral violence and an understanding of how the regional climate is likely to change in the future could give an indication of the propensity for conflict in the region. Climate forecasting is difficult, especially at a more granular level, such as within small regions within a country. It is clear, however, that the long-term changes will most likely include an increase in drought frequency and intensity, as well as an increase in rainfall variability. This variability will also include a short- to mid-term increase in rainfall, which means heavier rainfall will possibly occur after periods of increased drought severity.

The movement patterns of the competing pastoral communities are another aspect of these conflict scenarios. Pastoralists are likely to move further and in greater number during times of resource scarcity, bringing them into greater contact and competition with one another. Increased conflict due to these enhanced movement patterns, ultimately in search of greener pasture and water for cattle, often contributes to increases in cattle raiding and violent conflict generally. Because these pastoral communities have existed for centuries, their grazing patterns exist independent of state borders, therefore illustrating how these conflicts can become transnational in nature.

Following this assessment of how climate change contributes to violent conflict among pastoral communities, it is worth looking at how the recent development of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could factor in as a part of the solution to this particular issue. Firstly, it is important to note that the effects of climate change in Turkana have an outsized effect on the communities that live there due to their fragility and low adaptive capacity. Climate change threatens to amplify certain aspects of community life, such as poverty, social and political marginalisation, limited education and employment opportunities, a lack of livelihood diversification pathways and low economic and infrastructure development, that constitutes such fragility. It is in addressing some of these broader factors that the SDGs could help to prevent violent conflict.

Goal 1 of the SDGs, No Poverty, provides useful data and key points that need to be addressed in order that poverty is erased in all its forms everywhere. About 42 per cent of the rural Kenyan population lives below the poverty line, which the UN defines as living on less than US$1.25 per day. Livestock is the lifeline of pastoral communities. Losing livestock can push them into poverty, which is already widespread in Turkana and other northern regions of Kenya. Not only does climate change contribute to such communities falling into poverty, but once in poverty they become even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. One of the targets of Goal 1 is to build the resilience of the poor and reduce their vulnerability and exposure to climatic changes and extreme events which, in turn, increases their chances of economic and social improvement. According to a recent UN report on the state of the SDGs in Africa, it is asserted that that success of Goal 1 will in large part depend on the reinforcing interactions between Goal 1 and Goal 8 for widespread and inclusive growth. Goal 8 addresses Decent Work and Economic Growth, which includes achieving higher levels of economic growth, technological upgrading and innovation, among others. These goals, particularly income diversification, would suit the pastoralists well in combination with some of those in Goal 1 to lower poverty and increase resilience. Indeed, it is paramount that there is a wider inclusive engagement between the differing SDGs to ensure that the target of No Poverty can be attained in this region of Kenya.

As the loss of arable land and cattle is one of the main factors that driver the pastoral communities into poverty, a key aspect of dealing with these losses is adaptation through livelihood diversification. For centuries, the Turkana and Pokot have employed a range of adaptation strategies to cope with natural climatic changes, particularly seasonal droughts. These strategies range from engaging in casual labour, artisan activities, fixed employment to honey production and basket making. These diversification activities are most often adapted and used to compliment the pastoral livelihood rather than replace it. There is a growing possibility that these alternative livelihoods will increasingly displace pastoralism as the main economic activity in the region.

A higher level of economic productivity through diversification, innovation and labour-intensive sectors is one of the targets of SDG number 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth. Promoting governmental policies that are development orientated and support decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, are extremely important for the marginalised and poor residents of northern Kenya, particularly the pastoral communities. The international community, alongside the Kenyan Government will need to ensure sound governance and the implementation of these targets, which certainly bears great potential for such disenfranchised communities. Pastoral communities a likely to be reluctant to abandon their treasured lives for those that are foreign and this may prove to be a major hurdle to overcome.

Education is another adaptive component that is broadly supported in the Turkana region. Sixty per cent of interviewed households in the region view education as a long-term adaptive strategy to overcome the increased challenges of pastoral life. While education is also viewed with some reservation by households, as it increases the workload on the rest of the family, it is still viewed as a viable long-term diversification strategy. Many households believe that education assists children and family members in finding jobs in the modern sector and urban economy, while some view it as a way for children to get adequate food through school nutritional programmes.

SDG 4, Quality Education, aims to ensure that all children complete free, equitable and quality primary education by 2030. In 2003, primary education was made free to all students in Kenya, this drastically increased attendance by almost forty per cent between 2003 and 2007. The number of public universities in Kenya also increased from five in 2005 to 22 in 2015. Ensuring that members of Kenyan pastoral communities have access to these educational facilities will help ensure they adapt to the changing climatic conditions of their region.

Climate change is likely to have a direct effect on the migration patterns of pastoral communities in Kenya and is likely to increase the number of migrants which, in turn, can contribute to violent conflict. The SDGs offer a number of targets that could play a direct role in stemming the increased flow and number of pastoral migrants.

Similar to most, if not all, developing states in its region, Kenya has an exceedingly difficult path ahead in achieving long-term growth and development that is sustainable and inclusive. The SDGs, however, provide a solid foundation upon which to build a national response that is sensitive to the specific needs of pastoral communities.

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