Environmental Management

, Volume 43, Issue 5, pp 817–835 | Cite as

Adaptation as a Political Process: Adjusting to Drought and Conflict in Kenya’s Drylands

  • Siri EriksenEmail author
  • Jeremy Lind


In this article, we argue that people’s adjustments to multiple shocks and changes, such as conflict and drought, are intrinsically political processes that have uneven outcomes. Strengthening local adaptive capacity is a critical component of adapting to climate change. Based on fieldwork in two areas in Kenya, we investigate how people seek to access livelihood adjustment options and promote particular adaptation interests through forming social relations and political alliances to influence collective decision-making. First, we find that, in the face of drought and conflict, relations are formed among individuals, politicians, customary institutions, and government administration aimed at retaining or strengthening power bases in addition to securing material means of survival. Second, national economic and political structures and processes affect local adaptive capacity in fundamental ways, such as through the unequal allocation of resources across regions, development policy biased against pastoralism, and competition for elected political positions. Third, conflict is part and parcel of the adaptation process, not just an external factor inhibiting local adaptation strategies. Fourth, there are relative winners and losers of adaptation, but whether or not local adjustments to drought and conflict compound existing inequalities depends on power relations at multiple geographic scales that shape how conflicting interests are negotiated locally. Climate change adaptation policies are unlikely to be successful or minimize inequity unless the political dimensions of local adaptation are considered; however, existing power structures and conflicts of interests represent political obstacles to developing such policies.


Climate change Conflict Drought Multiple stressors Adaptive capacity Adaptation Drylands Kenya 



We thank the local administration, community leaders, and ordinary people in Kitui and Turkana districts who agreed to be interviewed for this research. We also thank research assistants in Kitui and Turkana districts. The paper forms part of a research project supported by the Research Council of Norway (2004–2006) and the Global Environmental Change and Human Security Project (2007). The project was carried out in collaboration with Bernard Odit Owuor, Wycliffe Muoka Mauta, Jared Amwatta Mullah, Benard Muok, Abdi Haji, and Samuel Auka (all at Kenya Forestry Research Institute), Kjersti Larsen (Ethnographic Museum at the University of Oslo), and Debby Potts (King’s College London) as well as our collaborating partners The African Centre for Technology Studies, Nairobi, and The Center for International Climate and Environmental Research—Oslo (CICERO). Special thanks go to Tone Veiby and Lars Risan, David Lister, and Ian Harris for assisting with climate data, maps and figures. We are also grateful to Karen O’Brien, Jon Barnett, and three anonymous reviewers for commenting on an early draft of this article.


  1. Adger WN, Paavola J, Huq S (2006) Toward justice in adaptation to climate change. In: Adger WN, Paavola J, Huq S, Mace MJ (eds) Fairness in adaptation to climate change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 1–19Google Scholar
  2. Allen J (2003) Lost geographies of power. Blackwell, Malden, MA, 232 ppCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Akong’a J, Downing TE, Konijn NT, Mungai DN, Muturi HR, Potter HL (1988) The effects of climate variations on agriculture in central and eastern Kenya. In: Parry ML, Carter TR, Konijn NT (eds) The impact of climatic variations on agriculture. Assessments in semi-arid regions, vol 2. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  4. Barnett J (2006) Climate change, insecurity, and injustice. In: Adger WN, Paavola J, Huq S, Mace MJ (eds) Fairness in adaptation to climate change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 115–130Google Scholar
  5. Barnett J, Adger WN (2007) Climate change, human security and violent conflict. Political Geography 26:639–655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boko M, Niang I, Nyong A, Vogel C, Githeko A, Medany M, Osman-Elasha B, Tabo R, Yanda P (2007) Africa. In: Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PJ, Hanson CE (eds) Climate change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of working group II to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp 433–467Google Scholar
  7. Broch-Due V (1986) From herds to fish and from fish to food aid: the impact of development on the fishing population along the western shores of Lake Turkana. A socio-anthropological case study. Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, OsloGoogle Scholar
  8. Brown DA (2003) The importance of expressly examining global warming policy issues through an ethical prism. Global Environmental Change 13:229–234CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Campbell DJ (1999) Response to drought among farmers and herders in southern Kajiado District, Kenya: a comparison of 1972–1976 and 1994–1995. Human Ecology 27:377–415CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Campbell DJ, Gichohi H, Mwangi A, Chege L (2000) Land use conflict in Kajiado District, Kenya. Land Use Policy 17:337–348CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chambers R (1995) Poverty and livelihoods—whose reality counts. Environment and Urbanization 7:173–204CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Davies S (1993) Are coping strategies a cop out? IDS Bulletin 24:60–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Eakin H (2006) Weathering risk in rural Mexico: climatic, institutional, and economic change. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 242 ppGoogle Scholar
  14. Ellis F (1998) Household strategies and rural livelihood diversification. The Journal of Development Studies 35:1–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ellis S, ter Haar G (2004) Worlds of power: religious thought and political practice in Africa. Hurst & Co., London, 272 ppGoogle Scholar
  16. Eriksen S, Brown K, Kelly PM (2005) The dynamics of vulnerability: locating coping strategies in Kenya and Tanzania. Geographical Journal 171:287–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Eriksen S, Gachathi FN, Muok B, Ochieng B, Owuor B (2006a) Synergies in biodiversity conservation and adaptation to climate change: the case of hilltop forests in Kitui, Kenya. In: Mistry J, Berardi A (eds) The savanna biome system. Ashgate, Aldershot, UK, pp 187–226Google Scholar
  18. Eriksen S, Owuor B, Nyukuri E, Orindi V (2006b) Vulnerability to climate stress–local and regional perspectives. Proceedings of two workshops. January 27–28, 2005, World Agroforestry Centre, Gigiri, Nairobi, and February 14, 2005, KEFRI Research Centre, Kitui. CICERO Report 2006:1, Oslo, NorwayGoogle Scholar
  19. Eriksen S, O’Brien K, Rosentrater L (2008) Climate change in eastern and southern Africa: impacts, vulnerability and adaptation. GECHS Report 2008:1, Oslo, Norway, 26 ppGoogle Scholar
  20. Fotheringham S (1997) Trends in quantitative methods 1: stressing the local. Progress in Human Geography 21:88–96CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gachathi FNM (1996) Conservation priorities in the arid and semi-arid lands: the case of the hilltop forests of Kenya. In: van der Maesen LJG (ed) The biodiversity of African plants. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, Netherlands, pp 313–316Google Scholar
  22. Gakure J, Mbogo D, Ochieng T (2006) Turkana District 2005—short rains assessment 9–20 January 2006. Kenya Food Security Steering Group, Nairobi, 9 ppGoogle Scholar
  23. George AL (1979) Case studies and theory development: the method of structured focused comparison In: Lauren PG (ed) Diplomacy: new approaches in history, theory and policy. Free Press, Macmillan, New York, pp 43–68Google Scholar
  24. Goldsmith P (1998) Cattle, khat, and guns: trade, conflict, and security on northern Kenya’s highland-lowland interface. Institute of Policy Analysis and Research and USAID Greater Horn of Africa Initiative, Nairobi, KenyaGoogle Scholar
  25. Goodhand J (2001) Violent conflict, poverty and chronic poverty. CPRC Working Paper 6. Chronic Poverty Research Centre, Manchester, UKGoogle Scholar
  26. Hogg R (1987) Settlement, pastoralism and the commons: the ideology and practice of irrigation development in northern Kenya. In: Anderson D, Grove R (eds) Conservation in Africa: people, policies and practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp 293–306Google Scholar
  27. Huq S, Khan MR (2006) Equity in national adaptation programs of action (NAPAS): the case of Bangladesh. In: Adger WN, Paavola J, Huq S, Mace MJ (eds) Fairness in adaptation to climate change. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 181–200Google Scholar
  28. Huq S, Rahman A, Konate M, Sokona Y, Reid H (2003) Mainstreaming adaptation to climate change in least developed countries (LDCs). International Institute for Environment and Development, LondonGoogle Scholar
  29. Jaspars S, Young H, Shuria H, Ogolla L, Kisopia P (1997) People on the edge: an evaluation of Oxfam’s emergency intervention in Turkana. March–August 1996. Oxfam, Oxford, UKGoogle Scholar
  30. Kenya Food Security Network (2008) Kenya Food Security Update January 2008. USAID/FEWSNET/Republic of Kenya/World Food Programme, Nairobi, KenyaGoogle Scholar
  31. Klein RJT, Eriksen S, Næss LO, Hammill A, Robledo C, O’Brien K (2007) Portfolio screening to support the mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change into development. Climatic Change 84:23–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lamphear J (1992) The scattering time: Turkana responses to colonial rule. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK, 336 ppGoogle Scholar
  33. Levine S, Crosskey A (2006) Can pastoralism be brought back to life? Towards a safety net and a way forward for North East Turkana. Oxfam GB Kenya Programme, Nairobi, KenyaGoogle Scholar
  34. Leys C (1975) Underdevelopment in Kenya: the political economy of neocolonialism 1964–1971. Heinemann, London, 123 ppGoogle Scholar
  35. Lind J (2005) Relief assistance at the margins: meanings and perceptions of “dependency” in northern Kenya. HPG Background Report. Overseas Development Institute, LondonGoogle Scholar
  36. Lind J (2006) Fortune and loss in an environment of violence: living with insecurity in south Turkana, Kenya. Unpublished doctoral thesis. King’s College LondonGoogle Scholar
  37. Lind J, Eriksen S (2006) The impacts of conflict on household coping strategies: evidence from Turkana and Kitui Districts in Kenya. Die Erde 137:249–270Google Scholar
  38. Little MA, Leslie PW (1999) Turkana herders of the dry savanna: ecology and biobehavioral response of nomads to an uncertain environment. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 436 ppGoogle Scholar
  39. Longley K, Maxwell D (2003) Livelihoods, chronic conflict and humanitarian response: a synthesis of current practice. ODI Working Paper No. 182. Overseas Development Institute, LondonGoogle Scholar
  40. McCabe JT (1990) Success and failure: the breakdown of traditional drought coping institutions among the pastoral Turkana of Kenya. Journal of Asian and African Studies 25:146–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. McCabe TJ (2004) Cattle bring us to our enemies: Turkana ecology, politics, and raiding in a disequilibrium system. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 320 ppGoogle Scholar
  42. Meier P, Bond D, Bond J (2008) Environmental influences on pastorial conflict in the Horn of Africa. Political Geography 26:716–735CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Mkutu KA (2007) Small arms and light weapons among pastoral groups in the Kenya-Uganda border area. African Affairs 106:47–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mortimore M (1998) Roots in the African dust: sustaining the drylands. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 237 ppGoogle Scholar
  45. Oba G (2001) The importance of pastoralists’ indigenous coping strategies for planning drought management in the arid zone of Kenya. Nomadic Peoples 5:89–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. O’Brien K, Leichenko R (2003) Winners and losers in the context of global change. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93:99–113Google Scholar
  47. O’Brien KS, Eriksen L. Sygna, Næss LO (2006) Questioning complacency: climate change impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation in Europe. Ambio 35:50–56Google Scholar
  48. O’Brien K, Eriksen S, Schjolden A, Nygaard LP (2007) Why different interpretations of vulnerability matter in climate change discourses. Climate Policy 7:73–88Google Scholar
  49. O’Leary M (1980) Responses to drought in Kitui District, Kenya. Disasters 4:315–327CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Owuor B (2007) Institutional dimensions in the management of dryland resources: case of the Kamba and Somali communities around Endau hilltop forest, Kitui District, Kenya. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Norwegian association for development research making institutions work for the poor? CMI Bergen, Norway, 5–7 NovemberGoogle Scholar
  51. Owuor B, Eriksen S, W. Mauta W (2005) Adaptation to climate change: evidence from a dryland mountain in Kenya. Mountain Research and Development 25:310–315CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Paavola J, Adger WN (2002) Justice and adaptation to climate change. Working Paper 23. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Norwich, UKGoogle Scholar
  53. Peters P (2004) Inequality and social conflict over land in Africa. Journal of Agrarian Change 4:269–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Republic of Kenya (2003) Geographic dimensions of well-being in Kenya: where are the poor? vol 1. Central Bureau of Statistics. Ministry of Planning and National Development, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  55. Republic of Kenya (2006) Kenya long rains assessment report 2006. Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG), NairobiGoogle Scholar
  56. Schubert R, Schellnhuber HJ, Buchmann N, Epiney E, Griesshammer R, Kulessa M, Messner D, Rahmstorf S, Schmid J (2008) Climate change as a security risk. Earthscan, London, 248 ppGoogle Scholar
  57. Scoones I, With C. Chibudu, Chikura S, Jeranyama P, Machaka D, Machanja W, Mavedzenge B, Mombeshora B, Mudhara M, Mudziwo C, Murimbarimba F, Zirereza B (1996) Hazard and opportunities: farming livelihoods in dryland Africa: lessons from Zimbabwe. Zed Books and International Institute for Environment and Development, London, 288 ppGoogle Scholar
  58. Smit B, Pilifosova O (2003) From adaptation to adaptive capacity and vulnerability reduction. In: Smith J, Klein RJT, Huq S (eds) Climate change, adaptive capacity and development. Imperial College Press, London, pp 9–28Google Scholar
  59. Sobania NW (1990) Social relations as an aspect of property rights: northern Kenya in the pre-colonial and colonial periods. In: Baxter PTW, Hogg R (eds) Property, poverty and people: changing rights in property and problems of pastoral development. Department of Social Anthropology and the International Development Centre, Manchester, UK, pp 1–20Google Scholar
  60. Thébaud B, Batterbury S (2001) Sahel pastoralists: opportunism, struggle, conflict and negotiation. A case study from eastern Niger. Global Environmental Change 11:69–78Google Scholar
  61. Thomas DSG, Twyman C (2005) Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies. Global Environmental Change 15:115–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Thornton PK, Boone RB, Galvin KA, Burnsilver SB, Waithaka MM, Kuyiah J, Karanja S, González-Estrada E, Herrero M (2007) Coping strategies in livestock-dependent households in East and Southern Africa: a synthesis of four case studies. Human Ecology 35:461–476CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. UNDP (2003) Third Kenya human development report. United nations development programme, Nairobi, KenyaGoogle Scholar
  64. UNFCCC (2007) National adaptation programmes of action (NAPAs) country reports. Available at: Accessed December 2007
  65. Vaillancourt K, Waaub JP (2006) A decision aid tool for equity issues analysis in emission permit allocations. Climate Policy 5:487–501CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Waller RD (1999) Pastoral poverty in historical perspective. In: Anderson D, Broch-Due V (eds) The poor are not us: poverty and pastoralism in Eastern Africa. James Currey, London, pp 20–49Google Scholar
  67. Yin R (1994) Case study research, design and methods. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 200 ppGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Human GeographyUniversity of OsloBlindernNorway
  2. 2.Centre for Civil Society, London School of Economics and Political ScienceLondonUK

Personalised recommendations