MARSABIT, Kenya — “We have never experienced a season like this one,” said Boru Sora, a 25-year old herder of the Borana tribe in northern Kenya.
“Sixty of our cattle died this year out of 120, 17 more were taken by raiders, but the main reason? It is hunger and weakness that kills them. It is the drought.”
At the center of Sora’s family compound, demarcated by thorn bushes, is a circular mud-walled hut; outside the plot, crumpled over rocks, are the desiccated carcasses of some of the family’s depleted herd, left to rot where they fell.
“It is a disaster for us,” said Sora’s 56-year old father Haro, a forlorn man who lost his right eye to disease years ago. “We have no hope.”
Pastoralists in the Horn of Africa have been hardest-hit by the drought that is ravaging the region. More than 12 million people are short of food and in the parts of Somalia where drought has worsened into famine, 750,000 people face starvation, according to United Nations figures.
Read more: Somalia's famine victims
For semi-nomadic pastoralists, animals are everything: all the family’s wealth is tied up in the herd, which is also a source of prestige and social standing. So when their animals die, their lives are over too — at least the lives they know.
Although pastoralists are often the victims of government neglect and marginalization, their suffering is also a problem for non-pastoralists. Livestock from pastoralist herds is the primary source of meat in the region, and is worth around $800 million.
In an attempt to mitigate the disastrous effect of ever-contracting drought cycles, a new scheme called Index Based Livestock Insurance has been launched in northern Kenya, with the backing of USAID, the US government’s aid arm, and other donors.
People who insure their herds receive a payout when drought strikes, but because the herders are widespread across a huge territory, it is impossible to count each animal and verify whether it survived the drought or not.
Read more: Animals need help, too
Instead, satellite imagery is used to estimate the intensity of the drought by measuring the deterioration of grazing lands, and when a certain threshold is reached, payments are triggered.
Around Marsabit, payments are triggered when herders are predicted to have lost 15 percent of their herd, although this year losses are estimated to be much worse, at around 18-33 percent.
There were thought be around 86,000 cows and 2 million sheep and goats in Marsabit district alone. The International Livestock Research Institute, (ILRI), which is running the insurance scheme, estimates that about one-third of these have died this year, pushing pastoralists to the brink.
“Agricultural insurance is not new, but bringing it to a remote community in a developing country is the innovation,” said Andrew Mude, an economist at ILRI in Nairobi, who is in charge of the insurance program. “This is possible because of improved technology.
“Using satellites, we can verify herd losses cost-effectively,” he said before adding, “but it does lead to some understanding gaps.”
That lack of understanding came to the fore during a ceremony to make the first payments to insured herders who had lost animals in the drought.
The tin-roofed church hall at Dirib Gombo on the Marsabit plateau commands a stunning view of a land dropping down to a seemingly endless flat plain that blurs into the horizon.
There is birdsong, sprays of vivid red bougainvillea, a light breeze swaying through the tree branches and drystone walls beetling across the newly tilled soil. For the first time in a year, it rained a few weeks ago, and tiny shoots of green grass have sprung up everywhere.
About 100 people crammed inside the hall, sitting knee-to-knee on wooden benches. At the front, a fat man in police uniform shook his swagger-stick at the gathering, ordering them to clap and sing on cue. Later, he lost control of them like a teacher facing a classroom revolt.
One man was particularly vocal. Waqo Huqa, a 35-year-old pastor, felt ripped-off and was suspicious. Last year, he insured 10 cows. They all died, but because the index said the threshold had not been reached, he received no payout.
So this year, he decided not to join the insurance program, and is angry that now his neighbors are receiving payments while he got nothing.
He questioned who was in control of the satellites that determine the extent of the drought, and questioned whether the people from ILRI or the insurance company were conning them.
“I feel we are being cheated. We don’t trust these satellites,” he told GlobalPost. “They say there’s been 26-percent death, but that’s not even half of the animals that have died here.”
Not everyone felt the same way. Halakhe Salesa Dambi, 33, was paid Ksh6,600 ($70) for the loss of his cows. Dambi said that all but one of his 74 cows died and the payout is only worth about a quarter of the cost of a single cow at market. Nevertheless, he is impressed.
“I could only afford to pay Ksh1,950 [$20] for insurance, now I have received much more than I paid in the premium, so it is better than losing my animals and getting nothing,” he said.
Mude said that last year when the scheme was piloted 1,970 policies were sold, but after there was no payout, only 600 signed up this year. All the policy holders will be paid this time around.
“Livestock insurance is not by itself sufficient,” said Mude.
“But if it is accompanied by other risk-reducing strategies, such as better access to grazing lands and watering areas, then the pastoralist approach, which some people dismiss as a backward lifestyle of the past, emerges as a very effective way to meet future food needs,” he said.