Dying cows due to climate change? Drought can never finish the Maasai cattle, only the human mouth can (Maasai saying)

  • Maasai herders lifting a cow during a drought.

This is a book chapter in the series 'History of Water', series 3, volume 3: 'Water and Food: From Hunter-gatherers to Global Production in Africa'.

In February 2010, reports appeared in the news of wildebeest, zebra and eland found outside the world famous Amboseli National Park in Kenya being returned to their (unfenced) habitat by the Kenya Wildlife Service. The drought of 2008-2009 had killed many of them and, after the December 2009 rains, the surviving game animals left in search of fresh grass. Lions and other predators followed their natural prey looking for a meal. At the same time, they also took the opportunity to enjoy the domestic stock of local Maasai pastoralists, or what was left of it as most herds had already been diminished by up to 90 per cent. The media and certain groups of scientists attributed this disaster to climate change. However, a closer look at the factual data questions this claim. Drought conditions certainly killed many animals, but there are also other reasons for their demise. This chapter, firstly, examines the claim of ever more frequent droughts in East Africa by studying long term data. Secondly, it illustrates other, more important causes for the temporary breakdown of the livestock system. In particular, it discusses old and new drought coping strategies employed by Maasai pastoralists and the difficulties encountered in today's realities as a result of land tenure changes undermining the mobility of herds. Following the migration routes chosen by a number of Maasai households, this chapter explains the devastating effects on cattle herds of new obstacles, such as the ever more frequent presence of polythene bags in urbanized grazing regions, the rising numbers of dried water sources due to export agriculture and the higher input costs for alternative feeds, among others, all of which are threatening the food security of the Maasai pastoralists.

About the 'History of Water' series

Major changes in policy and management, across the entire agricultural production chain, will be needed to ensure the best use of available water resources in meeting growing demands for food and other agricultural products. This new volume in the successful 'History of Water' series focuses on the African continent to address this key issue. Humanity has its roots in Africa and many of our food systems developed there. All types of agricultural production are present and the sheer size of the continent offers wide ecological variation from extreme desert to dense rainforest. Drawing together leading international contributors from a wide variety of disciplines, the 'Water and Food' volume offers new insights into the evolution of food systems, from early hunter gatherers to the global challenges of the modern world.

Rutten, M. 'Dying Cows Due to Climate Change? Drought can never finish the Maasai cattle, only the human mouth can (Maasai saying)'. Tvedt, T. & Oestigaard, T. (eds.). 2016. A History of Water, Series 3, Vol. 3. Water and Food: From Hunter-Gatherers to Global Production in Africa. I.B. Tauris. London, pp. 299-336.

Author(s) / editor(s)

M.M.E.M. Rutten

About the author(s) / editor(s)

Marcel Rutten is a senior researcher at the ASCL. His research activities concentrate on natural resource management, notably of land and water, in (semi-)arid Africa. Currently three research programmes are being carried out: conflicts over land; famine and drought coping strategies; and sustainable development of low-cost water sources (shallow wells).

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