Nestled within once-vibrant highlands, the majority of Kenya’s population has endured a series of climate-related challenges impacting their lives and livelihoods over the last four years. Currently ranking 90th out of 125 countries assessed in the Global Hunger Index and classified as having a serious level of hunger within its population, Kenya is not on track to achieve its SDGs by 2030.
The COVID-19 pandemic, a series of droughts, locust plagues and floods have hindered Kenya’s capacity for SDG progress. Whilst the devastating impacts of these environmental shocks are clear in their cost to human lives, social welfare, infrastructure and the country’s socioeconomic health, what is less clear is the implicit link between these disasters and warming in the Arctic.
The Link between Arctic Change and Kenyas’s SDG Progress
The Arctic acts as a critical regulator of the Earth’s climate, and its vast expanse of ice and snow is crucial in reflecting sunlight to keep the Earth cool. However, accelerated melting in the Arctic is increasing darker surfaces that allow more sunlight to be absorbed as heat. Not only does this contribute to rising global average temperatures, but it has resulted in the Arctic warming four times faster than the global average rate in recent decades. This imbalance in warming disrupts atmospheric circulation patterns, which rely on heat differentials. This disruption can then, in turn, cause extreme temperatures and precipitation events far away, including those that affect food security in Kenya.
If the Arctic loses its sea ice and snow cover, global warming could accelerate by 25-40%, multiplying risks worldwide, including in Kenya. Nine of the sixteen climate tipping points are in the polar regions with five out of the nine already close to tipping. While Arctic change alone is not solely responsible for climate shifts across Kenya, factors such as increased solar energy absorption due to melting Arctic ice and altered jet streams arising from differential rates of warming, have knock-on effects on the country’s weather patterns.
Climate Crisis Amplified by Arctic Melting: A Socioeconomic Risk for Kenya
Kenya has historically experienced a semi-arid/arid climate, with a great degree of variation depending on altitude. However, the increasing effects of climate change have resulted in variation from this historic norm through extended droughts and extreme weather conditions.
The highland areas, which are home to both the vast majority of farmland, but also the population of Kenya, make up only about 20% of Kenya’s total landmass. In dryer lowland regions, the land is mostly used for nomadic pasture for livestock. Both farming and cattle rearing are vital to Kenya’s socio-economic landscape, constituting 54% of its GDP and 90% of its workforce. These industries are not only highly climate sensitive, but also have the capacity for a vast ‘knock-on-effect’ to the achievement of other SDGs such as SDG 4 (Quality education), SDG 5 (Gender equality) ad SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure).
In times of insecurity regarding livelihoods, food, and the need to relocate, the most vulnerable communities are more likely to experience the most devastating impacts of climate change. This is evident in the sharp decline in school attendance among young girls in Kenya during droughts, as they are left to support increased household labour needs and water retrieval efforts. Furthermore, women and young girls face heightened risks of sexual violence due to increased exposure while collecting water and are vulnerable to child marriage, a last resort for impoverished families.
After many consecutive years of drought, Kenya is experiencing widespread food insecurity. In the arid and semi-arid parts of the country, an estimated 4.4 million people are facing high levels of acute food insecurity due to ten straight years of below-average rainfall.
The extended drought period has devastated the key industries of farming and livestock management, contributing to the large-scale displacement of many rural communities to refugee settlements. Such disruption has acted as a stalling mechanism for Kenya’s progress towards achieving its SDGs due to the loss of human capital, stable industry and opportunity for the development of its infrastructure.
Within urban centres such as Nairobi, it is estimated that over 70% of the population live in informal settlements. Those living within informal settlements have vastly reduced access to infrastructure such as drinking water and sanitation. Furthermore, in overcrowded and often unsafe structures, contagious diseases such as COVID-19 are far more likely to spread at a rapid pace.
Investment is desperately needed by those living within insecure environments to achieve the SDGs. However, extreme weather and climate shocks exacerbate and create new hardships for climate vulnerable countries, making their SDG targets even less accessible.
Apart from extended droughts, Kenya has witnessed extreme rainfall and flash floods in recent years. After drought, the dry soil has reduced capacity to absorb water and flooding becomes more likely. Floods can damage crops and infrastructure, and in severe cases claim lives – 12 Kenyans were killed by floods in March 2023.
Arctic change also affects Kenya by way of increasing sea levels due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which is one of the largest contributors to sea level rise. Rising seas around Kenya threaten infrastructure in low-lying coastal cities like Mombasa. Saltwater intrusion can also taint freshwater aquifers, bodies of rock or sediment that holds groundwater, and destroy agricultural lands, further impacting food security.
The situation in Kenya highlights the urgency of scaling up efforts to reduce emissions around the world to slow climate change. However, given that Kenya and many other countries are already experiencing the dire consequences of climate change, adaptation initiatives must be urgently mobilised.
Wealthy countries and organisations, the highest historical emitters of greenhouse gases, have been promising vulnerable developing countries and communities upwards of US$100 billion in funding since COP15 in 2009 to combat the effects of the climate crisis. At COP26, a new initiative was launched to generate $40 billion per year but only about half of the funding materialised.
As highlighted on the Solutions page of the Arctic Risk Platform there is no singular nor simple answer to ‘solving’ climate change and its devastating impacts globally, and particularly in climate vulnerable countries. However, the connection between changes in the Arctic and extreme weather and climate emergencies in countries such as Kenya is clear.
For Kenya to achieve its SDGs, rapid investment is needed urgently both within Kenya to provide support for the most vulnerable, but also, on an international level to address the melting Arctic elephant in the room.
For more information about how the Arctic affects Africa please click HERE.
The following gauges show up-to-date data regarding key indicators in the Arctic. These indicators clearly point to the crisis at hand.