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The Health Impacts of Climate Change in Kenya

 Alex Jordan

 

Susan Wanja is Head of Nursing at St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya, where our ECLAS Africa hub is based.

Her nineteen-year career as a nurse and nurse educator has taken her to South Sudan and Rwanda as well as around Kenya, where she grew up and where she is now based. This makes her well qualified to understand the impacts of climate change on healthcare, and she spoke to me about her experiences.

Climate change and food security

Kenya’s population relies a great deal on rain-fed agriculture, and climate change is exacerbating the already pressing problem of food insecurity.

“We already have communities that cannot afford meals, that have no access to education. We have a lot of economically challenged people. Now, when you add the effects of climate change to that, the risks are compounded, their vulnerabilities are compounded,” says Susan.

As Kenya lies in the equatorial climate zone, the effects of climate change can vary from region to region. Susan reflects: “Where we used to experience a lot of rainfall, we no longer experience that kind of rainfall; in areas where we didn’t have any flooding, now there is so much flooding.

A man digs for water in a dried up river bed

Digging for water in a dry riverbed. Credit: Flore de Preneuf /World Bank Photo Collection

 

“Back home – I come from an agricultural area – there had always been reliable rains. Then, two years ago, there was no rain. People who were used to fending for themselves, going to the shamba [garden or field for growing crops] and getting their meals, were no longer able to do that. So they have to rely on the government for food aid. They have to use the money they were using for other things for food. You can no longer pay school fees, you can no longer even afford healthcare. Malnutrition is one of the big issues. We have many cases of stunting [of growth in children].”

While global warming has been caused largely by emissions from outside Africa, it is the continent’s populations who are being forced to adapt to its impacts. Susan suggests that one adaptation could be for farming communities to grow more drought-resistant crops, though with GM crops only becoming legal in Kenya in 2022, not everyone has access to them. Another solution is a return to traditional crops and indigenous livestock that can withstand greater temperature ranges – for example Zebu cows, which have traditionally been kept by the Maasai people, but are now being raised by other communities too.

 

Climate change and public health

The effects of climate change have had a noticeable impact on public health, as Susan has witnessed through her work.

She says: “We were doing a study in one of the slums in Nairobi, looking at the mental health impacts of climate change. There had been a lot of flooding in Nairobi that had not been experienced before. You go there and interview people, especially the women, and they tell you, ‘I had my small shop, I was able to afford food, but when the rains came everything was swept away. Now I have nothing.’ Instead, many of them have to turn to things like transactional sex and that brings HIV/Aids. It’s a very sad situation. Economically it has challenged people, especially women.

“We have a lot of communicable, water-borne diseases because of the floods. Malaria in Kenya used to be restricted to particular areas where it’s hot, but malaria is now coming to areas where we never used to experience it. Kenya provides free vaccinations and treatment for malaria and numerous other illnesses, but immunisation schedules are being disrupted because of the floods. If you’re marooned, you’re not able to access the hospitals, and healthcare workers can’t come to you.

“There are many factors that are contributing to the rise in public health challenges, but they are all related to climate change.”

Women planting saplings at a tree nursery. Credit: Andrew Wu/World Resources Institute

Engaging local voices

Kenya’s government and religious leaders are aware of the problem of climate change and the need to mitigate it. “During sermons in church, you hear the preachers talking about climate change. There is a lot of information about how to mitigate it. But even though there is a lot of information and advocacy, in Kenya we don’t contribute much to climate pollution. For Africa as a whole, our contribution to climate pollution is just four per cent. How do we adapt? How can our communities be more resilient?”

One problem that Susan sees is that research on climate change solutions is largely conducted in the West, and that Kenya lacks local solutions. “The advocacy is there, the awareness is there, but we are not going to have an impact, because the data they are using is from elsewhere and not all of it is applicable to us.” Donor-funded studies have limited impact, even where they are carried out locally, because donor-funded research focuses on “what the donor wants. It’s not what the community wants.”

She adds: “Can we at least try and engage the voices in our localities? Can we collect data in Kenya and use that to inform policy? Our spiritual leaders are going into the slums, to restore hope to the people living there, but as they do that, can we provide them with information that is appropriate for their context?

“There is no way we are going to have a one-size-fits-all solution, because even within our own country people are being affected differently. There is an educational focus on mitigation, but can we now focus on how communities can be resilient – so that when the floods come, they can bounce back and continue their lives?”

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