Climate Change and Food Security in Kenya

Still 69Editor’s Note:  Our current WE Badger Volunteer, UW-Madison Senior Aubrey Winkie, spent last year in Kenya studying the effects of climate change on subsistence agriculture and food security.  We asked her to describe her research and findings.


The residents of Lare, a farming village of about 55,000 people spread out amongst the rugged land of the Kenyan rift valley, are feeling the effects of climate change on a dramatic level. Not all were aware of the term “climate change,” but all were keenly conscious that the rains were scarcer and the droughts were more frequent. For these families, who rely solely on the food they grow themselves, even slight changes in the climate can result in a longer hunger season. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that by 2020, African rain-fed agricultural yields could drop by as much as 50%. Several problems are highlighted when dealing with issues relating to climate change in developing countries, the first being that these countries do not cause the majority of the problems but suffer most from the detrimental effects of climate change. As seen in Figures 1 and 2, developing countries create far less emissions but have the greatest death toll due to climate change. This death toll comes from their citizens’ heavy dependence on the products they reap from the land and their inability to adapt to changes in the climate.

                                                                                                                                                                          WATERCAP wants to change the way this inequity affects the livelihoods of rural East African farmers. WATERCAP’s projects are supported by APPEAR (Austrian Partnership Programme for Higher Education) and run under several different universities in Europe and East Africa, including Egerton University where I was stationed for my research. WATERCAP’s goal is to strengthen farmers’ capacities to mitigate climate-change-induced water vulnerabilities. Through partnerships with small-scale farmers, universities, and actors in the agricultural food chain, WATERCAP works to improve the relevance of research for famers while increasing innovation capacity through partnerships for outreach, research, and training. WATERCAP also aims to support mutual learning and technology exchange between their partners. I conducted research for a WATERCAP project focused on improving “water harvesting,” aiming to make the water that is available during the rainy season last throughout the year. The main innovation implemented under this project was the waterpan, a large hole on the farmer’s land that collects water through trenches connecting the waterpan. Draining water from the dirt roads keeps the roads in better shape during the rainy seasons and allows for mass collection of water, as opposed to the commonly used water barrel.

The study I carried out for this project measured the impact waterpans have on a family’s food security. For this study, I collected quantitative and qualitative data from 60 families within the village of Lare: 30 with waterpans and 30 without. The qualitative aspect of the interviews served to identify characteristics of each family that had potential to influence food security, such as what crops they were growing, if they had any other source of income other than farming, and family size. The quantitative aspect of the interview was a food-security and diversity questionnaire that was influenced by the Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance Indicator Guides for Food Security and Diversity, recommended by the food-security specialist at Egerton University. This questionnaire gave families a numerical score for each question that was then turned into a food-security mean. In addition, I conducted interviews with the village chief and the agricultural extension officer to gather further information on the demographics of the area and on other existing programs.

My research showed that waterpans have promising results for food security and also indicated areas where WATERCAP’s outreach and implementation could be improved. The study revealed that there is a statistically significant correlation between the presence of a waterpan and improved food security. Farmers with waterpans were found to have a 24% higher rate of complete food security than those without waterpans. Additionally, 37% of farmers without waterpans were severely food insecure, defined as three incidents a week or more of having to go to bed hungry, skipping meals, or having no food for a whole day, while only 7% of those with waterpans were classified as being at this stage of food insecurity. There are several variables that could account for this strong correlation between food security and the presence of a waterpan, the most obvious being that waterpans allows farmers to irrigate their crops or seedbeds, resulting in increased crop yield and a lower failed-crop rate. With increased crop yield, farmers are able to provide enough food for their families and to sell the surplus crop for income. This income can be used to provide additional food for the family or be invested back into the farm, improving crop yields in future years. Another factor that could play into the higher food security is income level; because these farmers had enough money to install a waterpan, it is plausible that they had another source of income or the ability to buy food that was not grown on the farm. However, this variable was accounted for in the qualitative questions, which showed that farmers with waterpans had less occurrence of outside income and still had difficulty purchasing food not grown on the farm. Although the presence of a waterpan meant an improvement in food security, my research also revealed that 75% of all farmers had food-insecure months during the year. In addition, at the time of the interviews, 85% of farmers were experiencing some range of food insecurity, although those with waterpans were experiencing less severe food insecurity. The qualitative findings showed that this remaining food insecurity could be improved with enhanced education on proper placement and construction of waterpans, as many farmers’ waterpans dried up during the year because of improper construction or lack of anti-evaporation tactics.

This study shows the importance water harvesting has on rural livelihoods in combating the detrimental effects of global climate change. The issue of water scarcity is one that affects all families within the Lare community and throughout Kenya as a whole. The effects of climate change have only exacerbated preexisting problems. Additionally, the findings have demonstrated that simple solutions can help mitigate these problems. Solutions such as a waterpan have great prospects for helping to ease the vulnerabilities in both water and food security, but the solutions must be made available to those most affected, along with education on how to implement them properly.


Citation: Basu, Paroma. “Third World Bears Brunt of Global Warming Impacts.” University of Wisconsin-Madison Online News, November 16, 2005. The map was created by a team of climate and health scientists from UW-Madison and World Health Organization.




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