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Online seminar on Examining the climate change, vulnerability and conflict nexus: Insights from Northern Kenya and a research agenda

J. Terrence McCabe, a Research Professor in the Institute of Behavioral Science and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, makes his presentation during the webinar.

Online seminar on Examining the climate change, vulnerability and conflict nexus: Insights from Northern Kenya and a research agenda


IDS held an online Zoom seminar on 30th November 2023, 5.00 - 6:30 PM EAT. Moderated by Prof Karuti Kanyinga, the following were the presenters.

John O’Loughlin is a College Professor of Distinction in Geography and Fellow, the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA.  He is a political geographer especially interested in the spatial and territorial aspects of conflict. He collects and analyzes aggregate data collected on the basis of small geographic units as well as individual survey data to understand the motivations of people to engage in violence as well as to measure the effects of violence on people’s material lives, experiences (especially migration), and attitudes. For the past decade, he has examined the potential effects of climate change on violence in sub-Saharan Africa.  Earlier work with former students pointed to the weak effect of higher temperatures on higher levels of violence using large data bases for a three-decade time scale. More recent work has concentrated in Kenya using representative national surveys of residents in all ecological zones. The main aim is to document any changing attitudes and behaviors in response to quickly changing environmental conditions due to climate change.

J. Terrence McCabe is a Research Professor in the Institute of Behavioral Science and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He has been working among pastoral people in East Africa for over 40 years. His primary research emphasis has been on how people adapt to the arid and semi-arid rangelands of Kenya and Tanzania, and how they cope with changing social, economic, and political conditions. Professor McCabe’s book, Cattle Bring Us to Our Enemies: Turkana Ecology, History, and Raiding in a Disequilibrium System (University of Michigan Press) won the 2005 Julian Steward Award for the best book published the previous year in ecological and environmental anthropology by the American Anthropology Association. In 2009, McCabe received a Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany for lifetime scholarly achievement. His current work examines the response and impact of compound extreme events on households and communities in northern Tanzania.

Mikkel Funder is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) in the section for Sustainable Development & Governance. He is a social scientist with a focus on climate change and natural resource governance in the context of development. He works with colleagues in East and Southern Africa to investigate the social, political, and institutional dynamics of climate and environment agendas, and how different actors respond. He is particularly interested in everyday agency and governance practices. Past work includes research on water and conservation conflicts. In recent years he has especially worked on local and national responses to climate change adaptation in Kenya and Zambia. Current work includes research with colleagues in Kenya to examine the role of land rights in climate change adaptation, including fieldwork on pastoral adaptation strategies in the context of changing and contested land use dynamics.


Sarah Posner is a Ph.D. student in the Geography Department and a graduate research assistant in the Program on International Development at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She conducts fieldwork in Northern Kenya, having worked in Isiolo County since 2018. Her primary research focuses on rural livelihoods and vulnerability to climate change. As part of her Master’s thesis, she conducted household surveys within rural communities of Isiolo, to assess coping and adaptive strategies at the local level. In the summer of 2019, she worked as a climate intern at the Kenya Red Cross headquarters, supporting work developing impact-based forecasts in Kenya that are used to trigger early action before extreme drought events occur. Her current work focuses on the relationship between climate change and intercommunal armed conflict.  Working with her advisor, Professor John O’Loughlin, and committee member, Professor Terrence McCabe, Sarah has conducted fieldwork tracking how attitudes and behaviors change over time by collecting longitudinal survey data. For her dissertation work, Sarah is interested in the role of informal institutions that mediate the climate-conflict relationship. 


The presenters were engaged by more than 120 attendants who gave their input and asked several questions. Key among them; 

Prof. Winnie Mitullah: Very important correlation between trust for institutions and violence. Trust in traditional institutions is generally high in Africa due to the presence of indigenous institutions. Although Kenya has a devolved system of governance in place, security as a service is not devolved hence the continued trust in indigenous institutions. In recent times we have seen shuttle security interventions by the national government and accusations of local leaders as drivers of violence.

Kenneth Ombongi: I appreciate the presenters for what promises to be a wonderful study with the potential to throw some light on challenges and societal dynamism related to security and climate change. A simple question: In a presentation in our staff research seminar series earlier this afternoon, an archaeologist from our Department of History & Archaeology, University of Nairobi, gave a paper on the use of space among Pastoral-Neolithic Communities of the Central Rift Valley (Nakuru-Naivasha areas. In this, he suggested that global warming and environmental degradation were notable in the prehistoric era in Kenya. The conclusion from here was that the phenomena of global warming and climate change are much older than the current hype that the two attract. Does this idea have any effect on the framing of your study?

Salome Bukachi: Thank you for the great presentation, Given that conflict is broad, how are you defining conflict? At what level are you looking at conflict given that conflict as a result of climate change cuts across from the household level all the way to the top? 2. And the same refers to violence. What nature of violence are you focusing on? And at what level?  Where do you see the most violence occurring?

Martin Marani: Factors inducing violence could be much more than those covered by the climate change-vulnerability-violence nexus. There is therefore a need to make assumptions.

Sylvia Rotich: Thanks to all for the great presentations. Following keenly, I am curious to know if you have any interest in considering the agro-pastoral communities from Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet, and West Pokot, which have been experiencing ethnic conflicts that become more volatile during prolonged drought periods.

Isaac Mongare: Climate change has contributed to scarcity of natural resources. These shortages lead to rampant insecurity. What can be done to diversify the livelihoods of pastoral communities and equitable distribution of resources?- Isaac Mong'are

Stacy Gimode: Thanks for the presentation. In regards to the conflict nexus, what is the role of culture considering climate change might increase the issue but we ought not to forget the topography of these areas?

 Isaac Mongare: Is there a correlation between historical injustices on one hand, and infrastructure, and economic distribution of disaster mitigation resources?- Isaac Mong'are

Mercy Minoo: The correlation between Climate and response to the same from communities is good. Has the group thought of the impact of these with the age cluster? Does the presence of inclusion of security change the way of study?

Elias Tarus: Thanks to all for the best presentations. l am keenly following this presentation, l need to know the countries that are highly affected by environmental degradation in Africa.

Daniel Esikuku: What is the role of social media and political leaders in facilitating armed conflicts as this affects trust in institutions?

Prof Amondi Akello: Prof, this is a very promising research product that could address the perennial problem of insecurity in northern Kenya. What strategies were inbuilt into it to ensure that it doesn't join the rest of research products gathering dust on the university academic shelves but go into policy decisions in Kenya?

Mel: As for the sampling, it wasn't clear if it was Probability-proportional-to-size (PPS) within each county or equal probability of selection with each country as you are focusing on rural populations. What's the metric if it is PPS? 0.5?

Brian Ngugi: My question goes to Mikkel. While the climate-cooperation prospects are least explored. Is it possible that climate change is weakening the very foundations of collaborative relationships?

Saina Kiprotich: Are there instances where the conflicts have been fueled by communities from neighboring countries?

Charles Kariuki: Thank you very much for such an excellent presentation. The counties of Marsabit and Isiolo are highly conflict-prone, not only due to their semi-arid context as well as because residents in those regions are primarily pastoralist nomads who fight over access to resources (water and pasture). Beyond the conflict drivers due to climate change issues, there are also border disputes especially where certain communities tend to lay claim over land they perceive to have lost. Political completion during each electoral cycle then became a driver for conflict beyond climate-related factors. I hope this study will appropriately control for this latter driver of conflict.  Thank you, Charles Muthuthi, PhD Economics student.

Abdiaziz Sheikh: In Northern Kenya, major drivers of conflict related to climate change include competition for dwindling resources like water and grazing land, increased frequency of droughts leading to scarcity, and migration patterns shifting due to environmental changes. These factors often exacerbate tensions among communities, sparking conflicts over limited resources.

Clement Nadio: I am from Turkana County. How best can we involve Pastoralists in adopting Climate change mitigation practices?  Especially Turkana County Pastoralists.




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