The latest report from the United Nations climate experts is garnering widespread attention as a dire warning of what the future may hold. But here in East Africa, where we have seen a series of failed rainy seasons that are unprecedented, climate change is already a problem here and now.
You can see it cruelly affecting itself in A littered landscape with the carcasses of more than 1.5 million cattle, sheep and goats manifests losses that have plunged some 13 million East Africans into poverty and starvation. And now, global food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine could deepen their misery.
In East Africa, the people most affected by this new normal of climate anomaly are known as pastoralists. Over centuries they have built a rich culture revolving around herding cattle across vast, barren, yet invigoratingly beautiful lands.
Today, many so-called experts dismiss pastoralism as a fragile, antiquated way of life , for which there is no longer any value. Addressing the problems of the 21st century. And they probably see the current drought-induced suffering in pastoralist communities as confirmation of their assessment.
But I work with livestock specialists who have been embedded in pastoralist communities for decades. Our data and that of our partners tell a very different story. It portrays pastoralists as natural stewards of the world’s largest ecosystem – people with a long history of raising livestock as a productive, sustainable business enterprise on soils that were too dry to support crop production even before the recent wave of drought.
Africa’s herdsmen, despite their current climate-related challenges, provide three quarters of the continent’s milk and half of its meat. Indeed, pastoralism is well suited to providing millions of Africans with a green, low-carbon future.
What pastoralists need is targeted investment so that they can use the survival skills developed over many generations to adapt to climate stress , generate more income from their animals and put a contemporary stamp on this ancient way of life.
Already in East Africa there are many pastoralists who have formed hundreds of “eco-conservations” and grazing associations to further develop strategies that maintain the health and productivity of both their animals and their rangelands.
To secure the future of Africa’s rangelands, we must secure the futures of their human inhabitants, most of whom still live in poverty. A good example of smart pastoral investments are innovative programs being adopted by the governments of Kenya and Ethiopia that subsidize the purchase of livestock insurance by ranchers.
Our studies show that this is far less common among insured households The case is that uninsured households are forced to sell their animals at ruinously low prices.
Households with such coverage come through droughts with higher incomes and milk yields. A new World Bank project is helping herders in Dijbouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia by providing livestock insurance and better access to finance and livestock markets.
And more good news came in March with the UN statement of 2026 as the “International Year of Pastoralists and Shepherds”. This is the result of years of work by a global coalition of more than 300 pastoral and support organizations and multiple UN agencies, led by the governments of Mongolia and 68 co-sponsoring countries.
Climate models predict such droughts now troubled East Africa is likely to become more frequent. It’s our choice. We can continue to neglect these resilient peoples and spend billions of dollars to address a range of climate-related crises.
Alternatively, we can invest in the people best equipped to sustainably develop East Africa’s drylands , and strengthen their ability to manage scarce natural resources while paving the way to a brighter future in a climate-stressed world.
Jimmy Smith is Director General of the International Livestock Research Institute, based in Kenya and Ethiopia.