An Arid World? Can We Learn from Other Nations?

The U.S. West has had years of recurring drought with resultant mandatory water conservation measures, massive wildfires and above normal temperatures.
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Written by Kathleen A Galvin

In the midst of another hot, dry, summer in the West, I notice a real wakeup call: Four former Republican leaders of the EPA (William D. Ruckelshaus, Lee M. Thomas, William K. Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman) have just endorsed action on climate change. This is the latest round of credible political stars to add heft to the push for action on climate change. Recently President Obama re-affirmed his commitment to addressing climate change and established a series of administrative actions to deal with the U.S.'s rock-bottom image in providing leadership on the international front. But other nations are way ahead of the U.S. The U.S. can learn a lot from what other countries are already doing.

I live in drought-weary Colorado where wildfires, high temperatures, scanty snowpack, and lack of precipitation have become the new norm. And I work on the other side of the earth, in the drylands of Kenya and Mongolia. These three places are similar because each has a dry climate perfect for livestock production; yet we seem worlds apart when it comes to climate change.

Last week I was sitting in a ger (a Mongolian yurt, a round, felt tent) in a river basin in Mongolia listening to a herdowner talk about how the climate was affecting seasons, water and his management strategies. He said that summers are cooler and winters are warmer. For the last four years there was not enough water in the Ongi River to reach a lake at the end of the river; Another herder said that during the 2009-2010 zud (snowy winter or spring) livestock were unable to find fodder through the snow, and large numbers of animals died due to starvation and the cold. In fact, two thirds of their livestock died that winter.

The U.S. West has had years of recurring drought with resultant mandatory water conservation measures, massive wildfires and above normal temperatures. After many years of low annual rainfall, this summer the seasonal monsoon has arrived, and we are having late afternoon showers. Although we are not out of the drought, it is a welcome relief this year.

About half of the Mongolia population still herd yaks, camels, cattle, sheep and goats for a living and are dependent directly on their herds for food and income. The Mongolian herder I spoke to told me that "forests are key to attracting rains and clean water for pastures;" he is now part of a voluntary group of households who have decided to cooperate with each other and the sum (district) government to protect the forest. They will try to prevent non-sanctioned cutting of the forest by negotiating with those who do it and monitoring and reporting it to the sum government.

In May of this year I was in the southern hemisphere, in Kenya, where I have been working for several years with Reto-o-Reto, which is a Maasai NGO and with the University of Nairobi's Center for Sustainable Dryland Ecosystems and Societies -- with the purpose of understanding dryland changes and developing solutions to problems and the education of dryland peoples. Kenyan governments, both national and counties, have specific policies to combat climate change. Herders have agreed unanimously that weather patterns have changed. Droughts have increased in frequency. Drought killed hundreds of thousands of livestock in Kenya in 2009 which resulted in famine. Faced with the challenges of recurring and severe droughts some herdowners have decided to voluntarily reduce their livestock numbers, introduce better breeds and fence part of their land to conserve pastures for the dry season. It is part of their commitment to re-align their livelihoods to a changing climate. The changes will not be easy for a people who depend on their herds for sustenance and identity; but the visibility of climate change impacts have made them attentive to both forward-looking policy and lifestyle changes. People spoke of purchasing livestock to fatten and sell before the next dry season and use the proceeds in new ways such as banking the money and making water dams and wells. Kenya has a new constitution (2010) and new county governments (2013). Kajiado County, for example, has devoted 20 percent of its budget to the environment and natural resources, in direct response to the difficulties facing herders.

Both Kenya and Mongolia are developing nations, where per capita income is low, the middle class is small and people in dryland regions are generally poor (although there are important differences: Kenyans in the drylands are much poorer on average; and the per capita literacy rate in Mongolia is higher than in Kenya). Neither Mongolia nor Kenya is contributing very much to GHGs that drive climate change. Yet at all levels people, from herders to business owners in cities are affected by the changes and taking action (e.g.,Mine-Dependent Mongolia to Push Renewables as Climate Change Bites - President; Climate Change Threatens to Transform Mongolia).

We in the U.S. are not taking much action on climate change though the former EPA officials and the President's office are "talking the talk." We are a nation that has contributed the most carbon dioxide per capita to climate change and we must adapt to it. Unfortunately we are in political gridlock and most importantly we are buffered by our wealth and prosperity, our denial, and technical-engineering hubris.

But if you squeeze your eyes slightly, you could see that we look like the grasslands of Mongolia or savannas of Kenya. Weather is more unpredictable, severe events are more frequent and people are being affected on a daily basis. Should we therefore not pay attention to what is occurring elsewhere and take action now?

Kathleen Galvin is an anthropologist specializing in African dryland adaptation to climate change. She is Professor and Senior Research Scientist at Colorado State University, and a member of the American Anthropological Association's Global Climate Change Task Force.

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