Traditional Knowledge and Climate Adaptation Strategies: A case Study of Three Communities in Kenya

Traditional Knowledge and Climate Adaptation Strategies:  A case Study of Three Communities in Kenya

Stephen Santamo MOIKO (Kenya)

Center for Sustainable Drylands Ecosystems and Societies, University of Nairobi, Kenya

Climate change is a critical factor, with implications on Kenya's development strategy and welfare of Indigenous Peoples. Livelihoods and prospects of economic development and those of Communities livelihoods are directly dependent on the exploitation of land and natural resources. Nearly 80 per cent of the population resides in rural areas, deriving livelihoods directly from land as farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk and hunter-gatherers, using mostly traditional production systems that depend directly on weather patterns. The country’s economic development hopes and aspirations are grounded on the exploitation of land and natural resources through tourism, agriculture and livestock production, and fisheries.  A combination of high dependence on natural resources as the basis of livelihoods and the foundation for economic development, high poverty levels and low capacity for adaptation, and the existence of other significant environmental stresses, make Kenya and its significant Indigenous Peoples population highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The impacts are likely to be manifested through increased incidences of droughts and floods, natural disasters, and land degradation leading to food and livelihoods insecurity, especially in the rural areas. This will in turn undermine the country’s capacity to realize its broad development goals, especially Kenya’s Vision 2030 objectives, thus reversing gains already made and undermining prospects for social, economic, and environmental transformation. It has been estimated that the costs of climate change could be equivalent to 2.6% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product each year by 2030. Extreme climatic events such as floods and drought are affecting an increasing number of the rural population and having adverse impacts on economic performance. Indeed the government has asserted that the success of the country’s economic development blueprint, Vision 2030, will depend in large measure on how environmental challenges arising from climate change are addressed. Yet, although it recognizes the challenge of climate change to the realization of key targets of economic development, Vision 2030 gives very scant treatment to climate change. It notes however, that climate change may slow down the country’s projected economic growth, firstly because “the economy is heavily dependent on climate-sensitive sectors, such as agriculture, tourism and coastal zones”, and secondly, because the mechanisms in place for coping with climate related hazards are weak.   Kenya is already experiencing significant impacts of climate change. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that the country’s mean annual temperature has increased by 1.0 degree Centigrade over the past 50 years, representing an average increase of 0.21 degrees Centigrade every decade. It is projected to increase by 1.0 degree Centigrade to 2.8 degrees by the 2060s. Further projections show that by the turn of the century temperatures in Kenya could increase by nearly 4 degrees Centigrade causing variability of rainfall by up to 20 per cent.  Kenya’s indigenous communities are vulnerable to climate risk and increased variability of climate factors. Relative to other communities in the country, Indigenous Peoples are more depended on climate factors and natural environments for livelihoods. Indigenous communities have minimal basic infrastructure and least livelihoods diversification alternatives.The social and economic status of  communities, in turn, has a direct bearing on their vulnerability to the impacts of climate phenomena.

While Indigenous Peoples have Indigenous  Knowledge Systems, which they  rely on to create coping and adaptation strategies to changing contexts, the high variability in climate factors, experienced in recent decades, has nevertheless impacted highly on the resilience and robustness of their socio-ecological systems. The result has been high levels of exposure to risk, destitution, social fragmentation, local conflict and high incidences of poverty.  A study was carried out in 2012 among three prominent indigenous communities in Kenya: Maasai, Ogiek and Turkana to establish their perceptions of climate change and gauge their application of traditional knowledge in coping to and adapting to Climate change. The findings reveal high awareness of climate change phenomena in local contexts, but poor understanding of climate change causality. The communities employ a wide range of coping and adaptation mechanism, many of which are functional in the short term, but may enhance vulnerability in the long term. Communities’ vulnerability to, and success of coping and adaptation mechanisms to climate change, were observed to be also contingent to external factors touching on land tenure, economic opportunities, and governance institutions.



An indigenous researcher and consultant from the Maasai Community in Kenya. Studied anthropology at the University of Nairobi then graduate studies at McGill University, Canada. Founder and director at Nabara Consult and associate researcher and lecturer at the University of Nairobi. A rangeland issues' expert, especially on issues of livelihoods (pastoralism), land tenure, climate change, environment and food security. Has carried out a number of  climate change studies among indigenous peoples of Kenya and has participated in and coordinated  in a number of international collaborative research studies on rangeland and climate related topics in Kenya. Has published a book and a few peer reviewed papers. Has also presented in many international and local conferences.


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