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Drought Gets No Respect

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorSeptember 8, 2009 5:26 PM


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The tragedy of Kenya's latest drought is captured in all its complexity by Jeffrey Gettleman. His deeply contextual story won't lend itself to climate advocates who'd probably like nothing better than to tag it as another cautionary tale of global warming. As Gettleman explains,

The aid community here has been predicting a disaster for months, saying that the rains had failed once again and that this could be the worst drought in more than a decade. But the Kenyan government, paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering, seemed to shrug off the warnings.

Even in the U.S., with its stable civil society, drought triggers recrimination and conflict over shrinking natural resources. In ethnically fractured Kenya, which still has not recovered from the violence set off by a discredited 2007 political election, here's the simmering social boil that Gettleman attributes to the drought:

It is stirring up tensions in the ramshackle slums where the water taps have run dry, and spawning ethnic conflict in the hinterland as communities fight over the last remaining pieces of fertile grazing land.

Kenya presents one of the most vexing cases for environmental security proponents, whose challenge is to demonstrate causal connections between environmental stresses (such as drought and resource depletion) and sociopolitical unrest. (This 2008 Gettleman story on Kenya's ethnic divisions underscores that challenge.) Teasing out the dominant variables responsible for Kenya's continuing decline seems impossible. That leaves us with a a more nuanced story of interconnected environmental, cultural, and political forces. Gettleman does this better than anyone with his reporting. Still, I have this nagging sense that drought is an obvious tipping point all through history. Yet humans time and again seem surprised and ill-prepared when the rains don't come. These days, there's much public discourse on sustainability and climate change; meanwhile, drought, which deserves more respect from policymakers and political scientists, is increasingly ghetto-ized in environmental debates as a subset of global warming.

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