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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

A Study of Impacts and Adaptation to Climate Change in Turkana District, Kenya

Turkana is one of the poorest districts in Kenya, with over 60% of its population falling below the poverty line and living on less than a dollar a day (CBS Kenya 2000). The average rainfall in the District varies from a super arid 200mm/year in the dry lowland plains to a semi-arid 600mm/year in the wetter highlands (Survey of Kenya 2003). Inter-annual rainfall perturbations are also substantial and the ecosystem is regarded as drought-driven. In spite of this, the Turkana are able to subsist via an adept system of animal husbandry and other livelihood options such as emigration, relief, remittances, permanent settlement and employment.

Two thirds of the Turkana population remain fully nomadic pastoralists. Animals ‘are the mainstay of their subsistence and their constant joy and abiding passion.’ (Baxter 1979) 70% of their diet is comprised of milk, meat and blood. For nomadic Turkana, ‘livestock’ are exactly what their name suggests; a margin of survival as well as something to live for in and of themselves.

Growing signs of outside influences can be observed on the fringes of this nomadic society, with the substitution of fabric clothes for leather ones, steel guns for iron spears, and towns for watering points. These towns represent the early roots of sedentarization and the nascent influence of an arguably ‘foreign’ Kenyan government, along with that of the Church, Islam, NGOs, traders, businesses and the broader market economy. And while these outside influences mix among Turkana’s periphery, the ominous prospect of adverse climate change sits atop the whole equation.

Over the past 20 years, since the founding of the International Panel on Climate Change, much knowledge and awareness has been developed with regards to greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts. The IPCC’s Assessment Reports from 1990 onwards have expressed with increasing certainty that the observed warming over the last century cannot be attributed to natural variation alone. Many of the models used to confirm the impacts of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have also been applied to forecast future climate scenarios. These scenarios, in turn, have helped generate a better idea of potential impacts, and emphasised the importance of policy-level response and technological adaptation.

While there is growing confidence in the modeling and science behind climate change, there remains an apparent gap in terms of understanding these impacts at the local level. Regional climate modelling suffers from some fundamental scientific and computational limits. Africa as a whole is subject to a relative want of climate observation and modelling. And although there has been a good deal written about impacts and adaptation to climate change in a global, regional and country-wide sense, this author has yet to come across a paper that addresses impact and adaptation for Turkana in particular.

The object of this discussion is to elucidate this gap. The paper aims to analyse existing knowledge of the subject and highlight technologies that can help the Turkana adapt to their changing climate. It is organized around an “anatomy of adaptation” presented by Smit et al (2000) which is based upon three questions: (1) who or what adapts? (2) adaptation to what? and (3) how does adaptation occur?

This paper has broadly divided these three elements into the three different chapters. The first will touch on the roots and present reality of Turkana pastoralism (1). The second considers existing forecasts of climate change in the region (2), and the final chapter presents a speculative discussion of potential technical adaptations that may hold promise for Turkana’s future (3). More specifically, this final chapter will explore the adaptive capacity presented by two technologies; namely road and water infrastructure.

Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.