Heat wave in Kenya a sign of battles of the future

Thursday March 01 2018

Demonstrators under the umbrella body of Friends of Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests carry logs and twigs as they staged peaceful demonstration in Nyeri town advocating planting of trees especially in the water catchment areas on August 23, 2015. Kenya is heating up year on year, and all projections indicate that things are about to get worse as a result to severe climate change effects. FILE PHOTO


Dennis Musyoka was singing in a choir in Kitui, a town 180km east of Nairobi, last Sunday when he suddenly collapsed and died.

On Wednesday, a pathologist confirmed that the second-year student at the Kitui campus of Kenyatta University could be the first Kenyan to die of a heat wave sweeping through the country.

A day after Musyoka’s death, temperatures in Murang’a, a highlands town northwest of Nairobi, hit 34 degrees Celsius, one point hotter than those recorded in Mombasa.

Kenya is heating up year on year, and all projections indicate that things are about to get worse.

While the period between mid-December and mid-March has traditionally been a dry season in Kenya, the temperatures this year have hit new highs, renewing debate on the effects of global warming.



Mr Peter Ambenje, director of Kenya Meteorological Department, says Kenya’s daily maximum temperatures, traditionally ranging between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius, have risen steadily in recent years.

On Wednesday, Nairobi recorded 30 degrees Celsius.

The level of humidity in the capital has also risen significantly in the last few days, hitting a high of 45 per cent on Wednesday.

These statistics point to a painful truth: That Kenya, while not a direct contributor to global warming, is bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change due to a combination of geographical and economic factors, as well as dependence on natural resources.

The 2015 Climate Change Vulnerability Index shows that three in five countries most at risk from the new world order are African, while the African Development Bank reports that the negative effects of climate change are already reducing Africa’s Gross Domestic Product by about 1.4 per cent annually.

In Tanzania, just like in Kenya and Uganda, water towers are drying up.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that nearly 82 per cent of Mt Kilimanjaro’s, Africa's tallest mountain, ice cap has disappeared in the last 100 years, and the soft white on top of Mt Kenya is melting away quite fast too.

For Kenya, the effects of this warming of the planet became apparent in the 1960s, when average temperatures started rising as rainfall volumes fell.

Heavy rainfall of more than 50mm is, however, expected from Friday in Western, Rift Valley, Nyanza and Central regions.

The weatherman says this will continue into the weekend.

But the rains will do little to arrest the damaging impact of a warming planet.

Scientists believe the danger is worse than previously imagined, and that human activities on the planet could have altered it forever.

Discussions have moved from the effects of global warming on human populations to whether human influence on the planet constitutes a new geological era — the Anthropocene Era.

The earth is, according to stratigraphy — the study of layers of rocks — about 4.5 billion years old, and this block of time is divided into smaller epochs of millions of years.

For instance, the 66 million years that came after dinosaurs became extinct is called the Cenozoic era.

Ice age
Within that era was the Quaternary period that lasted about three million years, and during which the earth was alive.

Then it went into several ice ages in a period called the Pleistocene epoch.

The most recent epoch is the Holocene, calculated to have begun about 11,700 years ago.

Even though highly disputed, some scientists believe that the Holocene, marked by a period of stable climate and balanced ecological system, ended around 1950, thanks to the effects of human civilisation.

That is why, at the international Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, on August 2015, an expert group argued for recognition of Anthropocene.

Mr Japhet Kanoti, a lecturer at the Department of Geology at the University of Nairobi, told Nation in an earlier interview that “this period can be linked with the progressive evolution of current human species, the Homo sapiens”.

“We are no longer the thinking man, but a new species driven by science, money, property and other things,” he explained.

“If we, the scientists, can define the boundary between the ‘old human species’ and the evolved new human species, then this boundary can for sure define this new epoch.

"The Holocene belonged to Homo Sapiens and the proposed epoch to a new species, us, to be defined by the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature.”

In the past six years, rainfall has been below-average, complicating the survival of many East African communities whose livelihoods and economies — agriculture accounts for 43 per cent of annual Gross Domestic Product in the region — are directly anchored on the availability of rain.

Overall, there has been a decrease of nearly 20 per cent in precipitation compared to levels 20 years ago.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts, consequently, that there will be a decline, by nearly half, of rice, soy bean, wheat and maize by 2020 in countries such as Ethiopia, South Sudan, Burundi, Bangladesh and Nigeria due to the impacts of climate change.

In fact, wheat may disappear from Africa by 2080, and production of Kenya’s staple meal, maize, will fall significantly.

Maize, therefore, could become the most costly food crop by 2050, and millet, a drought-resistant crop, the cheapest.

But, before then, Kenyans will have to grapple with rising temperatures.

Health concerns

Nairobi residents who spoke to the Nation on Wednesday said the past few days have been particularly bad for them.

“I’ve been experiencing difficulty in breathing for a week now,” Mr Patrick Okutse, a trolley operator in the city, said.

“Sometimes I feel a sudden swash of heat, which makes me dizzy. My two-month-old baby has also not been sleeping well due to increased temperatures at night.”

For Holly Achieng, a shoe shiner, the extreme dehydration and exhaustion of recent weeks have been her biggest bother.

“I have to wake up several times at night to drink water. I also don’t cover myself at night. It’s quite like nothing I have seen before,” she said.

Stephanie Asiko, a student at Kenyatta University, prefers to stay indoors whenever she is not in school.

“I hardly come to the city nowadays because it’s too hot here. I have also been experiencing occasional headaches and dryness of skin lately,” she said.

Conservation efforts

According to the weatherman, focus should now shift to nationwide environmental conservation efforts to mitigate the extreme weather conditions.

“Kenyans have now come face to face with the bare consequences of environmental destruction.

"It’s time now that the country started paying close attention to environmental conservation such as practising proper farming methods and ensuring that they are not contributing significantly to environmental destruction,” Ambenje said.

Deputy President William Ruto on Sunday announced that the government had outlawed logging in the country for three months, but more will have to be done to reverse the losses so far.
Assessments project that by 2020, about 75 million to 250 million people worldwide will be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change, and in 2015 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that weather-related hazards triggered 14.7 million displacements.

For Kenya, hunger and resource wars are the immediate hazards.

The Kenya Red Cross says more than 3.4 million Kenyans are facing starvation, 241,000 of them at the Coast alone.

However, in the wake of the sudden death of Dennis Musyoka in Kitui, the nation’s priorities might shift from Mr Ruto’s logging ban and the Red Cross’ relief food drive to ensuring that the millions struggling with unbearable heat understand its causes, and reclaim their lands for a cooler tomorrow.