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Water caused desert, desert everywhere

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 1988



Korr, Kenya

Water. Ironically, that's what hurt this desert village and miles of land around it the most. Water to drink. Water for the cattle. After missionaries put in deep, year-round wells by the early 1970s to help the Rendille people, the Rendille liked it so much they quit their nomadic rounds and settled, more or less.

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As more settled, more trees were cut down to build corrals to protect cattle from wild animals and keep them from straying. Other wood was used for cooking fuel. What was a wooded landscape just 20 years ago became a desert.

``We call it a man-made desert ... created by man through his destruction of the vegetation,'' says Charles Amyunzu, a Kenyan senior range ecologist with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have been working in this region of Kenya for years to halt the desert's steady spread. So far, say ecologists here, the desert is winning.

Regular livestock marketing days are held each month to encourage the Rendille to sell part of their herds. Camels are used to carry such items as grain to satellite cattle camps to discourage the bringing of herds to the village, where the land is already badly overgrazed.

But the presence in the village of government security personnel, a school, the wells, a health clinic, and missionaries continue to draw people to Korr.

UNESCO's project is encouraging use of stone corrals and ones made of living bushes to reduce the need to cut more trees. But the ideas have not caught on.

Even the idea of marketing cattle to reduce pressure on the land has run into resistance. ``As a Rendille, I don't like to sell my animals, especially camels. They are very precious,'' says Simon Sahado.

The Rendille, like many African tribes, see cattle as a sign of wealth, as an investment, as their insurance, and for payment of a ``bride price,'' which young men pay to a girl's parents.