The knock-on impacts of the climate crisis on Kenyans

Lions walking down a dirt road followed by two trucks full of tourist in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Image credit: Craig Stevenson via Unsplash

Kasey Lambert is an Imperial student studying MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance. Prior to joining the course, Kasey spent a summer in Kenya with a local NGO supporting their mission; helping rural communities to prevent diseases such as ‘jiggers’ in challenging circumstances, exacerbated by climate change – in particular, water scarcity and drought. Increased temperature and sea-level rises are just two of the well-known impacts of climate change on countries like Kenya, however there are several less well-known knock-on effects, such as the increased risk of ‘jiggers’ and decreased tourism that need to be discussed and mitigated in order to ensure a resilient society.

By now it is nearly common knowledge that Sub-Saharan Africa will be one of the regions most impacted by continued climate change, and one of the least to blame as Africa accounts for only 2–3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources. Kenya is near and dear to my heart but, like many Sub-Saharan African countries, it has high poverty rates which will be worsened by climate change. Also, the traditional rural livelihoods of many Kenyans depend on a stable climate and climate change will disproportionately negatively impact these citizens. The ‘big three’ consequences discussed most frequently – increased temperatures, sea-level rise, and increased risk of drought and floods – are not the only issues Kenyan’s face. Each have knock-on effects that also need to be considered before an adaptation plan can be implemented. Here I explore two such issues, each of which could have a profound impact on the country.

Jiggers – The tiny bug that causes mayhem

‘Jiggers’ is the colloquial term for Tunga penetrans, commonly known as the Chigoe flea. It is a flea that lives in the dirt but burrows itself into people’s feet, hands, and knees, remaining and growing there until it lays eggs. Without treatment, individuals can lose mobility in hands or feet. Unfortunately, this flea is highly prominent in the dry red clay of rural Western Kenya and is thriving in the warming temperatures. Research indicates that cases of jiggers infestations are continuing to grow due to climate change and the lengthening dry season period. Jiggers underground nests are typically washed away during the wet season. However, as common across most East African countries, ‘dry is getting drier‘ and nests are thriving.

The solution to preventing jiggers is quite simple, wash your hands and feet in clean water with soap after working in the dirt. This simple practice is difficult for the majority of Kenyans at risk of jiggers infestation (those who live in rural areas and rely on local water sources), due to increasing droughts and water scarcity caused by climate change. Without an ample supply of water, people become infected, affecting their ability to walk longer distances to other water sources, resulting in further water scarcity and an increase in infections.

Tourism – They will stop coming

Tourism generated up to 1.6 billion US dollars of revenue for Kenya in 2019. It is one of the countries’ largest economic sectors, and one of the most at risk to the impacts of climate change. Each year, tourists flock to Kenya to experience the natural beauty of its coast and the rich wilderness that makes up most of the country’s interior. Mombasa is Kenya’s largest coastal city and a favourite for many domestic and international tourists in search of a beach resort vacation. However, Kenya’s electric grid system is primarily powered by hydroelectricity, and as temperatures rise and droughts persist, the energy supply to these resorts will quickly deplete, as will access to water. Already, the water availability in Kenya per person is lower than internationally accepted levels, and Mombasa is regularly required to enact water rationing. The combination of limited access to reliable electricity and decreasing water availability could give tourists enough incentive to spend their money elsewhere.

Total Contribution of Travel and Tourism to GDP (2015), source: An economic assessment of tourism in Kenya, The World Bank

For the rest of Kenya, rising temperatures increase the risk of forest fires and decrease grassland productivity. Without lush grasslands, the wide range of grazing animals that migrate between Tanzania and Kenya will be unable to survive, followed quickly by the predators. Many tourists travel to Kenya to see these majestic animals, howevere it is estimated that Kenya’s wildlife is declining by approximately 3% each year. The economic shock of a decrease in tourism could result in a 8-12% decline in GDP, with the largest impacts felt on rural communities who make up most of the sector’s labour force.

There is no question climate change is going to have a disproportionately negatively impact on Kenyans. They will have to deal with a range of environmental impacts, increased risk of disease and significant economic loss. However, from my experiences in Kenya, I can attest to the country’s resilience and forward-thinking attitude. I previously worked with a local NGO who provided simple water filters and basic solar lighting to rural communities. This minor change allowed families to avoid waterborne illnesses and helped children to complete schoolwork after the sun has set. Kenya has contributed incredibly little to climate change, but will be required to make substantial changes to support its citizens with adapting to the impacts of the climate crisis. This makes it even more necessary to hold developed countries accountable for the commitment made in the Paris Agreement – to provide at least 100 billion US dollar per year from 2020 in public and private resource to finance projects that enable developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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