ALAGO ALBA, Kenya, Jan 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Usually at this time of the year, Ibrahim Hassan would be preparing his livestock for a lengthy trek toward greener pastures along the River Tana, some 100 kilometers away from his village in Dertu, Northern Kenya.
Like many here, Hassan knows his livestock will die if he does not move the herd ahead of the looming dry season, which hits between the months of January and March.
But this year the 58-year-old has decided not to move. His reason is stacked in heaps of hay protected under a grass-thatched shed at his home in Alago Alba.
"When the rains have fallen and there is pasture, I collect as much as I can and then store it in bales to prepare for the dry season," explained the father of six. "This saves me the long and dangerous journey in search of pasture."
An old technology - cutting and baling hay - is making inroads as a form of climate change adaptation in Northern Kenya, where worsening droughts have increased the length and uncertainty of migrations to find pasture, and at times led to worsening conflict over scarce water and grass.
The problems faced by livestock-owning families in Northern Kenya is clear from a remote automated weather station at the Dertu Millenium Village center, which shows that rainfall readings can remain at zero for many days during the dry season.
The solar-powered unit also shows that wind speeds can be as high as 40 kilometers per hour, and daytime temperatures increasingly high.
The station operates as "a drought early warning system", explained Samuel Mbalu, a database manager at the station. Without such help, "herders lose their livestock to the drought while families flee their homes in search of food and water", he said.
The Dertu Millennium Village is one of set of communities testing means of ending extreme poverty through sustainable development. The villages were established by organisations including the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the United Nations Development Programme.
For the decade or so he has worked at Dertu, Mbalu has repeatedly tried to convince the community in the area to reduce their herds of livestock to manageable levels when the dry season is about to set in. But few have been persuaded.
"The herders believe that reducing the livestock is taking away (their) livelihood and prestige in society," Mbalu said. "They would rather have their stocks die than sell."
However, a few, like Hassan, have taken up other of Mbalu's ideas, including baling hay to get animals through the dry times.
THE BENEFITS OF BALING
Saving more animals in drought periods is having far-reaching effects in the community. At the Dertu Boarding Primary School, classrooms are full of children busy with lessons - a change from the times when boys would have been home assisting their families with preparations for the migration in search of pasture, said Sofia Ali, the school's head teacher.
The girls, she says, at this time would have been married off to reduce the families' burden of coping with drought.
One of these would have been 13-year-old Halima Hassan, who is in class four. She is Ibrahim Hassan's daughter.
"I was tempted to marry her off but I am happy I did not. She is now getting an education thanks to a settled life," said Halima's father, as he rationed handfuls of hay to his healthy looking herd of cattle at his home.
Other changes are also underway. Nunow Rage, 35, said her husband's decision to begin reducing his herds and to cut hay rather than migrating has allowed her to invest in a clothing business at the Dertu shopping center.
"When my husband sells the livestock he gives me a share of the money to buy stock for the business," said the mother of four. "When the drought is too much I use the savings to buy food for my family."
Nunow said a settled life has also helped cut child mortality in the area, in part because she and other mothers can take their children to the Dertu Health Centre if they face problems.
And it is not only in Northern Kenya that hay baling is winning converts. At the Mwea irrigation scheme in Central Kenya, youth groups are baling dry rice straw and selling it as livestock fodder, said David Bundi, chairman of the Kiratina Hay Product youth group.
A bale of hay weighing about 14 kilogrammes can fetch as much as $7 (Ksh. 700), and some of the group's production has been transported as far as Northern Kenya, to feed livestock dying of drought there, he said.
He hopes the government will begin supporting such innovations, both to provide youth jobs and to help the country deal with worsening drought.
"We would like the government to give us tenders to supply hay to drought-struck regions as well as (to) public institutions that keep livestock," Bundi said. (Reporting by Kagondu Njagi; editing by Laurie Goering)
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