By Murimi Gitari
What Kenya’s worst drought in 40 years and Nairobi ‘winter’ say about climate change
Briefly introduce yourself.
I am Dr. David Gikungu, currently serving as the Head of the Kenya Meteorological Services. That means performing the role of director of meteorological services, and oversight of the Institute for Meteorological Training and Research, which is also headed by a Director. This is in line with the new establishment that recognizes the position of Secretary of meteorological services, who will be in charge of the overall Service. I am combining both roles for now.
Tell us more about KMD, its mandate.
Our mandate is to provide accurate and timely weather and climate information and services for the safety of life, protection of property and conservation of the natural environment for sustainable development.
Along with that, it is important to note that our responsibilities, and that of any National and Meteorological and Hydrological Service, are defined by the World Meteorological Organization. We provide crucial information for aviation and shipping operations as no airplane or ship can take off without relevant weather information. The Meteorological Service also provides the science that underpins climate change discussions and much more.
Kenya has been experiencing different rainfall patterns every year. In layman’s language, what has been the cause of this?
The general characteristic of equatorial climate is all-year round high temperatures. East Africa has a modified equatorial climate, owing to the highlands that characterize the region. Rainfall in East Africa is associated with the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The ITCZ is a band of low pressure around the Earth which generally lies near the equator, and tends to follow the migration of the overhead sun. The trade winds of the northern and southern hemispheres come together here, leading to the development of frequent thunderstorms and heavy rain.
These thunderstorms can reach, and sometimes exceed, 16 kilometres in height above the surface. The ITCZ moves throughout the year and follows the migration of the Sun’s overhead position typically with a delay of one to two months. The most important consequence of this shifting is the annual alteration of wet and dry seasons in tropical Africa. As the ocean heats up more slowly than land, the ITCZ tends to move further north and south over land areas than that over water. During the months of July and August, the ITCZ lies well to the north of the equator, creating favourable conditions for the October-December “Short Rains” before moving south by January and February, facilitating the March-May “Long Rains”.
The two rainfall seasons are characteristic of East Africa (Southern Ethiopia to Central Tanzania), compared to western and southern Africa, which have a single intense rainfall season. Anything that interferes with the huge water bodies or air masses and pressure systems that determine the weather patterns is likely to influence rainfall performance. The observed climate variability could be attributed to such interference.
The government rolled out a plan to plant over 15 billion trees in 10 years to combat climate change. In your own opinion, has deforestation been a cause of climate change and the different weather patterns in the country?
The interference with our major forest systems has been part of the contributors to the features of climate changes that we are seeing. There are other factors. If you replace a natural system with an artificial one, such as buildings, then the difference is certainly going to be felt.
Even with the different rainfall patterns, there are regions where it rains heavily followed by floods with other areas experiencing total dry spells. Explain.
We have different climatic zones across Kenya that determine the kind of rainfall patterns that are experienced. For instance, there are arid and semi arid regions, mountain areas, coastal areas and the savanna. All these determine the kind of rainfall regime that a region receives.
A good example is Lake Victoria, where the dynamics are such that rainfall and thunderstorms are largely experienced in the afternoons, following sunny mornings with high temperatures while at the coast, rainfall is largely a morning feature.
There are reasons for this difference. Afternoon thunderstorms around Lake Victoria cool the land surface, creating a large temperature gradient, and make way for land breezes at night. At the coastal area, the moisture levels may be different because of the vastness of the water body, the Indian Ocean, which cannot be compared with Lake Victoria as what surrounds Lake Victoria is not the same as what surrounds the Indian Ocean.
That is just to paint a picture on how different physical features influence the rainfall and other weather patterns in various parts of the country per season.
Kenya is currently enduring the worst drought in about 40 years, with wildlife being affected. What needs to be done so as to tackle this kind of situation in future?
This is a good question especially in view of the times we are in. As a start, early warnings provide a good starting point for preparing for the intensifying extreme events we are seeing, as a result of climate change. WMO is currently spearheading the global initiative on early warnings for all.
This is the way that we all need to go. As KMD, we provide the early warning information and relevant government agencies and ministries develop the plans to mitigate or adapt to the events expected. In the long term, utilization of climate change projections enable countries to plan for the future along both adaptation and mitigation responses. For example, the current Head of State is leading the nation in such an initiative; that is, spearheading afforestation to stem the effects of deforestation and increase carbon sinks. Use of solar power or clean energy is another example that is being promoted in order to ensure clean sustainable development.
Many smallholder farmers in the country depend on rainfed farming and the results at the end of farming seasons are unbearable to them. Is it time these farmers embraced irrigation?
There is no shortage of knowledge in regard to what to sow, where to sow and when to sow.
Many of these farmers know their soils as well as crop suitability with respect to seasons. This means they are aware of the variety of crops that do well and the period they will take to grow and mature.
They are assured of a harvest that will keep them going till the next harvest. There are other places where rainfall is never enough at any given season. Studies have been done to determine the type of crops that favor those particular areas; for some locations, farmers are guided on when to grow fast maturing crops, especially when the climate outlook does not promise sufficient rain.
Our situation here in Kenya is such that where, for example, those ones who have to do short maturing crops, sometimes face repeatedly failed rains year in year out.
There is a balance because a vast part of the Western zone of the country regularly receives sufficient amounts of rainfall. Although the crop (maize) takes long to mature, farmers are almost always assured of a harvest. In places where rainfall is insufficient, exploring the irrigation option may be advisable.
Egypt hosted the COP27 where climate change and agriculture were among topics of discussion. What were the outcomes from the conference? Is Africa benefitting in a big way this time round?
These were discussions that have been going on for a long time and with varying results. I personally think the main issue that everybody is talking about as having been a big win is the acceptance by the big forces on the whole issue of loss and damage.
Because what that means is the development of a scheme for compensation for what is lost and/or damaged as a result of anthropogenic climate change. That is, as a result of the activities of developed countries that bear the historical responsibility for where we are in terms of climate change. However, even after welcoming the whole issue of loss and damage, many are afraid of the implementation as this is another big issue; but the fact that they have accepted, the modalities will follow, and it’s still a big win.
Those are discussions that have been going on and I do not know how long this will take. According to the Paris agreement, collectively we should strive to keep warming from exceeding 2oC and staying even lower at 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is noteworthy that, as Africa and even more so Kenya, we are not among the key contributors to climate change; but we do our part in contributing to the global goals.