The economics of local adaptation in the dryland ecosystems of Isiolo County

Investments to support pastoralists in Northern Kenya to adapt to the changing climate pay immediate dividends – but the benefits are even greater if the indirect impacts can also be taken into account.

Resource scouts such as Abdelkader, pictured in the Ewaso Ng'iro river bed, Isiolo County, gauge how best to use dry-season grazing areas (Photo: Caroline King-Okumu/IIED)

Access to grazing is crucial for pastoralists in the drier parts of Kenya, but in Garba Tulla town, grazing animals would usually have eaten much of the vegetation from the drought reserve areas before the dry season had even arrived.

In 2014, local leaders came up with a strategy to tackle this problem, engaging their young people as resource scouts and ensuring that grazing patterns were carefully organised and monitored. Only when all other pastures were exhausted did anyone allow their herds to begin grazing in the drought reserve. As a result, all of the local herds survived the long dry season.

But how much did it cost to make this happen? Who paid for what? Was it worth the investment? And how long will the benefits last?

Rainfall: a scarce resource

In dryland ecosystems (PDF), where total annual rainfall is less than 65 per cent of the amount needed to support optimum plant growth, rainfall tends to arrive sporadically and water resources concentrate unevenly in parts of the landscapes. The challenge for people who live in these landscapes is to maximise resource benefits when and where they are available, and to survive through the seasons when they are scarce.

In Northern Kenya and the Horn of Africa, there are two dry seasons in the year, each lasting for several months. During these periods, humans and animals consume the water and vegetation conserved from the preceding rainy seasons in sheltered low-lying areas and riverbeds.

Around once every five years, droughts occur and reserves of water and food can run out before the next rains arrive. Climate change predictions (PDF) suggest that the frequency and severity of such events may increase in the future. This means that adaptation to climate change will have to include better drought preparedness.

To avoid costly drought emergencies, communities need to invest in building their resilience, but this has costs. Justifying the required investments (from individuals as well as local and national authorities) involves assessing the economic benefits. These can be assessed in terms of the value of avoided impacts and damages, plus any co-benefits (often referred to as ancillary benefits) generated by the implementation of adaptation measures.
 
In Isiolo County, Northern Kenya, the Department for International Development (DFID) has provided £455,687 to boost pastoralists' ongoing private investments in adaptation to climate variability. This grant covered the cost of planning and putting into operation a devolved local Climate Adaptation Fund (CAF).

In 2014, the CAF began providing support to projects which had been prioritised and developed by ward-level adaptation planning committees. In four of Isiolo's rural wards, the committees chose to allocate £66,234 to incrementally enhancing the local customary methods of managing grazing resources.

Strengthening these local adaptation systems is a 'low regret' adaptation approach because it helps pastoralists to cope more effectively with dry conditions in the short term, while also enabling them to increase their resilience to future dry seasons and droughts.

Scouting the best way forward

Customary practices for modulating water use and grazing patterns between the wet and dry seasons in the Eastern rural parts of Isiolo County are based on continuous monitoring and observation of the natural resource conditions. This can be difficult to organise when grazing areas are remote from towns and villages.

It requires local associations to select, train and coordinate young people as scouts, review the information that they collect, and make decisions about when and how to use the dry season grazing areas and drought reserves. This task can be complicated by the circulation of pastoralists from different areas, including some who may not recognise the local scouts and grazing patterns.

The video below shows how the Isiolo County Adaptation Fund has helped communities in Isiolo revive customary ways of managing access to land and water.

The CAF provided support for local associations to host meetings with pastoralists from neighbouring counties and to purchase mobile phones and motorbikes that youths could use to monitor the remote grazing areas and water points.

In light of this, the associations increased the frequency of their coordination meetings. They developed resource surveillance strategies, including rules for responsible use of the monitoring equipment, responded to reports on resource conditions and some took charge of the management of watering points.

A worthwhile investment

The elders paid from their own pockets to host their meetings, hire vehicles, and support the youths during their scouting expeditions. When all of the associations across the Eastern wards of Isiolo added up how much they had invested in these activities over the long dry season of 2014, the amount was five times the funds that they had initially received from the CAF. However, when they considered the benefits, they concluded that it was well worth their investment.

During a series of participatory assessment workshops held at the end of dry season in 2014, local association members from Garba Tulla, Sericho, Merti, and Kinna wards debated how many livestock would have died had it not been for their effective stewardship of the dry season grazing areas and drought reserves.

They also noted that because the reserves had ensured the continuous availability of pasture and water in their areas, their animals had not grown weak and ceased to provide milk during the dry season, but had instead given birth and kept households supplied with milk.
 
Individuals also identified other immediate direct and tangible benefits from local natural resource stewardship relating to improvements in the condition of vegetation and levels of regrowth, improvements in soil quality, and in the water balance. These ensured that the ecosystem remained a source of the "services" the local community depended upon, including food, water and fibre for human use, as well as wildlife, seedbanks, germination, and other benefits.

There were also immediate indirect impacts on consumption, mobility and the wider economy. Less tangible benefits, such as enhanced family and social cohesion, reduced conflict and insecurity, strengthened local associations and even an increase in the political status of the local associations were also reported.

Related: A framework to assess returns on investments in the dryland systems of Northern Kenya (2015), Caroline King-Okumu, IIED Working paper 
 
Caroline King-Okumu (caroline.king-okumu@iied.org) is a senior researcher at IIED on dryland ecosytems.