In the parched village of Musosya, 120 miles east of Nairobi, they call Tabitha Paul the “Rain Lady”. Every day at 9am she lifts her calibrated rain gauge up to her eye, and writes the result in her official meteorological notebook, to be sent to the Kenyan capital. She also shares the information with her neighbours – it is crucial in deciding when to plant their crops, and even what crops to plant.
“During the community barazas [meetings], I am usually asked about the month’s rainfall, and then we decide what to do,” said the 43-year-old, known as “Mrs Paul” from her husband’s first name. But in recent months, the Rain Lady has had page after page of zeroes in her notebook. Worsening droughts over the past few years have dried up most of the water sources in Kitui district.
“When it does not rain, people cut down trees to make charcoal, so that they can make some money to buy food,” said Mrs Paul. The lack of cover means that when rain does fall, it erodes the soil and harvests decline further. “The more we cut trees, the more rainfall patterns change and decline. Temperatures in our village are much higher than they used to be,” she added.
Hundreds of millions of people in the world’s poorest countries are innocent victims of a changing climate. As they suffer the consequences, they can imagine that they are responsible, often unaware that fossil fuel emissions in the richest nations do much more to threaten their survival. Everyone from the world’s scientific establishment to Pope Francis is warning that the UN climate change conference which opens in Paris tomorrow will be crucial if the environment is to be saved from irreversible damage.
Tabitha Paul was selected as the village’s rain measurer despite the fact that her education ended with primary school. A visit to her farm, still thriving while others are struggling, explains why. On a succession of terraces, built to catch every drop of rain that falls, she is growing maize, bananas, beans, millet and other food crops. Last year, she planted passion fruit vines, which are already producing fruit, and she hopes to gather mangoes next year from the 52 trees she has in the soil. Chickens, goats and a donkey roam around – like most farmers in the district, Mrs Paul keeps livestock as well. Best of all, a reservoir below her farm has plenty of water.
Mrs Paul has become a model to her neighbours, thanks to her eager adoption of a water management programme launched in the district two years ago. “Hands on Kitui”, supported by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (Cafod) in England and Wales, is starting to tackle the effects of deforestation and soil erosion. Gullies created by fast-running rainwater have been blocked with rocks and sand dams to prevent more earth being washed away, and trees planted. This has increased the amount of rainfall that can be absorbed by the soil.
Last year, the Musosya earth reservoir below Mrs Paul’s property – constructed by local people, like the other anti-erosion works – was empty in September. “We dug a 5-metre borehole and it was dry,” said George Wambugu, a water and sanitation specialist with Cafod Nairobi. “No water was retained in the soil. We assumed that this year it would also be dry, but when the rains came, the reservoir filled up, and the water has stayed in there ever since. ”
This in turn has enabled Tabitha Paul and some other farmers near the reservoir to grow more, though none have been as successful as she is, thanks to the amount of terracing she has created. “You can see the family are very hard working,” said Michael Musyimi of Caritas Kitui, Cafod’s local partner. Six of Mrs Paul’s eight children live with her, but they are able to give her less help now that they are all at school. “I never imagined I would be able to grow and sell bananas, but now I use the money to pay the school fees,” said Mrs Paul.
But throughout their marriage, Tabitha’s husband Paul has been a “climate refugee”. He has always had to seek work in Nairobi to keep the family going. It was how they got through the worst drought she has ever experienced, in 1994.
“We finished all the food we had stored up. Our livestock all died,” she said. “I remember we experienced extreme hunger. It was a very bad time in the village: many people had absolutely nothing to eat and no money to buy food. Luckily, my husband was able to send us some money from Nairobi.”
Mrs Paul’s dream is that the farm could earn enough to keep the whole family in one place. “Men have always been leaving their wives behind to look for money,” said Mr Wambugu. But Tabitha Paul’s hopes are bound up with the Paris climate change conference. If leaders of the world’s developed and developing nations cannot agree to limit greenhouse gas emissions, Kitui will suffer. The fate of the Rain Lady, her neighbours in Musosya and many millions like them could depend on a gathering in far-away France at last getting to grips with the causes and the consequences of a changing climate.
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