Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hope and Crisis: Climate Losses & Perseverance in Kenya

When we witness the relentless onslaught of extreme weather in Kenya, we’re tempted to wonder about how to hang on to hope. The deck looks impossibly stacked against Kenyans for whom drought, flooding and changing disease and pest vectors are spreading hunger and poverty.

But in the last few days, we’ve seen some examples of amazing resiliency and initiative. Community self-help organizations are terracing hillside fields to conserve water and prevent erosion. They are adopting Farming God’s Way, a gospel-based form of conservation agriculture that enhances soil health and conserves moisture. They are planting indigenous trees in many places to restore ecosystems and resist desertification. They are building remarkable sand dams, which turn seasonally-dry rivers into year-round water sources, and raise the water table.

Where these initiatives are being implemented, parched communities are showing marked improvement. Women walk fewer kilometers to carry water home for their families. Children’s clothes are washed more frequently.  Crops flourish in the shade of the replanted tree canopy. Biodiversity is returning, with a wonderful assortment of birds, lizards and others of God’s creatures. And all this, despite indisputable evidence that the climate is becoming harsher, hotter, and more extreme.

We read Psalm 104 in our morning devotions together, and we think of these Kenyan communities – “You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills; they give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.” For the moment, our hearts sing.

But then, in a cruel reminder of this harsh new world, we hear the news from our friends – Scott and Jennifer Myhre – in nearby Kijabe. More than five inches of rain the night before last pummeled the surrounding area in only two hours. The road into Kijabe was rendered impassible. The mission hospital and the Rift Valley Academy were cut off. Water supplies were threatened.

Record rains sweep away Kenyan hillsides
And then last night, another 1.5 inches fell. Mudslides again closed the roads. Water supply pipes to the Kijabe Hospital have been destroyed, rendering this vital community lifeline almost useless. Many homes, businesses and schools have been seriously damaged.

And worst of all, three little girls have been killed in the mudslides.

Already this month, Kijabe has had more rain than normally falls in an average year, according to local ecologists who monitor these patterns. The community has planted many trees, but those trees can only do so much to hold the soil in place, in the face of such a torrent. And with the mudslides go valuable topsoil, young trees, this year’s crops, access to the hospital, and yes – three precious little girls.

Let me acknowledge the Christian Reformed Church (CRCNA) in all this. Last year, the Synod adopted the Creation Stewardship Task Force Report. The key findings of your church were these:

  • Climate change is occurring and is very likely due to human activity
  • Human-induced climate change is a moral, ethical, and religious issue
  • Human-induced climate change poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable
  • Human-induced climate change, as a global phenomenon, poses a significant challenge to us all
  • Urgent action at the personal, communal, and political levels is required to address climate change.

But you didn’t stop with the science, or with broad ethical statements. You sent your own people to vulnerable communities to see for themselves, and to report back to you. That’s a major reason why we’re here in Kenya, and that’s why we’re sending these messages back to you.

We all hope you’re getting an up-close sense of the harm that our treatment of the earth and its atmosphere are doing to our brothers and sisters in these distant lands – and to God’s countless other beautiful creatures. We hope that it gives rise to a gospel-infused, grace-filled discussion within our North American family. And we pray that many of you will hear the cry that we’re hearing from God’s injured creation – and his precious little Kenyan girls.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Message to America from Kenya’s Church Leaders

Friends with A Rocha and World Renew (both excellent Christian NGOs) managed to get us an extensive meeting yesterday with top leaders of the Kenyan National Council of Churches. It’s hard to say what a privilege it is to meet with Peter Karanja, General Secretary, and Chris Kamau, Sr. Officer for Social Services. These men are top leaders representing the biggest church denominations in Kenya.

At the end of a wide-ranging discussion about creation care and environmental challenges, one of our fellow North Americans asked our Kenyan hosts: “We want you to be totally candid with us. Please don’t pull any punches. What should we tell our churches back in North America?”

They paused for a brief moment. I had the sense that they were torn between Christian hospitality and the Christian honesty we were asking for. But they chose – I think – the route of candor. I wasn’t taping their narrative, but scribbled in my notebook like mad. Here’s a smattering of what they said:

“We are very concerned, especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. We don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from industry money, or maybe people just don’t know about climate change. They are not willing to reduce anything, and they’re not at all willing to finance the cost of adaptation (to climate change in affected poorer countries).

“The message needs to get to the American people. You need to tell your leaders: ‘We are the ones who put you in office. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world.’

“We have these international conferences on climate change. But at the end of the day, the U.S. always comes up with something to make them collapse. We come away with nothing, and no hope. Because Christians are one family, they must be the ones to pressure their governments to act responsibly.

“There are a lot of people who have no idea about the impact of their lifestyles on other people. Long after your life is over, your actions will have consequences on us. Many of them will be harmful consequences.”

I just thought you’d want to know how some of the most senior leaders among your global brothers and sisters feel about you and me. If you’re angry at them, let yourself cool off for a bit, and read this again tomorrow. If you’re still angry, consider this: The average Kenyan emits 0.33 tons of CO2 per year. The average American, on the other hand, emits 19.3 tons. It would take 58 Kenyans to generate as much carbon pollution as one of us. But unlike most of us, they’re suffering exactly the droughts, floods and crop failures that climate science has been projecting.

Are you still mad? If not, then maybe you’ll consider passing your thoughts on to your congressional representative. It’s easy and you can do it here.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why EPA Gave the Keystone XL a Failing Grade

As you may know, I’m far away listening to harrowing accounts from East Africans whose families and lives are being threatened right now by the impact of climate change. We are stunned at what we’re hearing. But this morning at breakfast, all the buzz among my fellow creation care advocates was about news from 7,500 miles away. In Washington, the EPA had just released their environmental report card on the Keystone XL pipeline. They gave the project a failing grade.

The way the law works, the State Department first has to produce an environmental impact statement (EIS) on this pipeline. The EPA is then required to review the EIS, and give it the expert thumbs up, or a failing grade. 95% of the time, the EPA has only minor comments on EIS reports produced by other agencies. But this one flunked: “Environmental Objection,” was the grade; they called the EIS “insufficient.”

But we also learned something new about what democracy looks like. More than one million messages to the President and Secretary of State were submitted from members of various organizations concerned about environmental protection and climate change. And that doesn’t count messages directly sent by private citizens like the readers of the Clothesline Report. I wonder how many issues have drawn one million objections from Americans. Not many, I’d bet.

Now, it’s one thing for you or me to write the President. But what about the EPA? Why have they panned this EIS report? Here’s a short list of their objections:

  • The EIS began with an almost incredible assumption: Up or down, this pipeline decision won’t affect tar sands production and CO2 emissions virtually at all. The EPA pointed out that the Keystone XL would deliver from Canada some of the dirtiest oil in the world, resulting in 935 million metric tons more CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere than would result from producing an equal amount of ordinary U.S. oil. How much would those extra greenhouse gases cost the people of the world? At the low end, U.S. government agencies today would set the price tag at $19.6 billion dollars. At the high end, a study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences would put the cost at mind-boggling $235 billion – a $34 tax on every human living on earth today, falling unequally on poor people like the Kenyan farmers whose struggle we lament in these pages.
  • The EIS assumes that greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands crude are only 17-percent higher than conventional crude. The EPA thinks that "the difference may be even greater depending on the assumptions made." The real result is very possibly much worse. And that means the costs to you might also be much worse.
  • The report underestimates the difficulty of cleaning up heavy tar sands spills. Tar sands don’t act like normal oil spills. Large portions of them spilled in waterways sink to the lake bottoms and riverbeds, rather than floating on the surface where it’s comparatively easy to clean up; and they just don’t biodegrade. Americans on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas are figuring this out to their sorrow.

So, if you already joined the one million of us who wrote the President, this is a day to celebrate a small victory for creation care. If not, don’t worry! It’s definitely not too late. Obama hasn’t made any decision yet, and your email may be the one that convinces him that enough is enough. You could just click here, and send him a short note. And you could remind him of the first job that the God of his faith gave to us after he made our race: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

We’re Disrupting Creation? How Do You Know?

We creation care advocates, we’re pretty sure of ourselves, aren’t we? Let’s face it. We’ve listened to the National Academy of Sciences. We’ve read the research on global changes. We know all the “parts-per-million” data. We’ve seen the melting glaciers, and the shrinking ice cover. We know about sea levels, ocean acidification, and runaway species extinctions.

But let’s face it: most people out there aren’t nearly as alarmed as we’re pretty sure they ought to be. After all, some say, scientists have been wrong before, no?

Then we talk to field workers on the ground, as we did yesterday in Nairobi. World Renew leaders in Kenya told us story after story of escalating climate shocks and related human suffering. It’s pretty credible stuff, and deeply alarming. But still, NGOs are in the crisis business, aren’t they? Maybe they’re dressing things up a bit for the visitors from North America?

So today, we got a totally different perspective, and I hope you’ll stick around to hear it. We took a long, muddy bus ride to one of the 300 churches in the Mount Kenya South Diocese of the Anglican Church here. Where I come from, Anglican churches are all granite and stained glass. This one, home to a rural Kikuyu congregation, let the daylight shine in through plastic panels in a rusted tin roof. It was pretty humble, to my Western eyes. But I thought it was a perfectly lovely place.

More lovely still, however, were the 17 Kikuyu women who run farms in the Diocese, and who had put their busy farm lives on hold to teach a few North Americans about the new challenges they face – trying to raise food in a broken climate system.  Adorned in brilliant dresses and head scarves of every color, they told us their stories.  We promised them we’d tell them again back home. Here are a few, based on my scribbled notes:

  • Isabelle: There used to be two planting seasons in the year. One was longer, and we called it the “lablab bean season.” The other was shorter, and it was  called the “millet season.” But now, we don’t have any planting seasons. We only plant when we see the rain. We used to be sure of the harvest, but not anymore. You plant, but you don’t have a harvest.
  • Sarah: Last year, we planted, but we never harvested – except for a few beans and potatoes. We are confused. Water is a problem for us.
  • Grace Dodo: We used to fill a granary plus more stored outside. Now, we can’t even fill the granary. The rains have changed, and the soil has been depleted.
  • Eleanor: Pests and diseases have increased. I’m not very old, but spider mites were never here before. When the spider mites come, we don’t get a crop. The pests force us to sell crops earlier than before.
  • Another woman: We always talk to each other about the rain. You can’t depend on the short rain anymore. Thank God for the technology.

The technology? That’s right. These women aren’t just taking what this harsh new world is dishing out. Others will tell this story better than I – but with the help of World Renew, Care of Creation, and others, the farmers are adopting “Farming God’s Way” – what we’d call conservation agriculture. They mix crops together in the same plot, heavily mulch their fields with leaves and branches to conserve moisture and suppress weeds, plant with minimal disturbance to the soil, add manure and wood ash to enrich the soil, plant under-crops to enhance fertility, and maintain trees to shade crops from excess heat. Some have bought into Farming God’s Way entirely, and others are testing plots side-by-side to see for themselves.

They’re remarkably resourceful people, and they’re doing everything possible to feed their families. But the changing climate is making it awfully hard.

And there’s another irony: Here in this tin-roofed country church, the topic of climate change isn’t even slightly controversial. It’s not a debate. It’s staring them in the face everywhere. It’s a fact. But almost every one among our company of Westerners knows that in our churches back home, you talk this way at your own risk.

But now, we’re talking. We promised these Kenyan women that we would. And maybe you’ll find a way to join the conversation? Maybe an African family farmer is what Jesus would call “my neighbor?” Things are changing, and to us, it’s clear that we’re deeply involved.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Monday, April 22, 2013

Climate Change in Kenya: It Didn’t Used to Be This Way

We enjoyed generous hospitality this morning from the staff of World Renew in Nairobi, an NGO affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church. At their offices this morning, we listened to leading authorities on agriculture, forest management, food security, development and disaster relief tell us the new reality of life in Kenya: Things are changing, and mostly not for the better.

I’m traveling with new friends from Canada, the U.S. and Uganda who share a deep commitment to caring for God’s creation. Some of us focus our efforts on the ravages of human-induced climate change. But our Kenyan friends are dealing with the facts on the ground, serving the victims of drought, flooding and soil degradation. They’re not fighting for a cause; they’re fighting for people.

The stories they tell all have a common theme: The systems people once relied upon to sustain their communities are increasingly unreliable. Droughts are increasing in frequency; so are floods, such as the ones ravaging Kenyan crops at present; and increasingly degraded soils are undermining the ability of farmers to rebound after severe weather shocks.  The result is increasing hunger, poverty and insecurity.

“Climate events are forcing us to fundamentally rethink how we work,” said Jacqueline Koster, World Renew’s director of disaster response for large swaths of the African continent.

For my part, I’m looking for the data: Prove to me that extreme weather is worse now than it once was; show me the data beyond any dispute. It happens that there is good data, but it only goes back a few decades – not long enough to persuade the most skeptical observers. But skeptics should have heard what we heard today from these experts on the ground. Here are some examples:

  • World Renew program consultant Stephan Lutz traced the trajectory of East African drought over the last forty years. There was one major drought in the mid-1970s that captured the world’s attention. Another came along a decade later. In the 90’s the pace increased to two. Two more hit in the 2000’s. And already, there have been two more crippling droughts since 2010, only 3 years into the new decade. Today, Lutz speaks of nearly “perpetual drought” conditions. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • World Renew formerly viewed its development work in terms of periodic interventions to help communities recover from occasional setbacks on the road to greater stability. But Koster doesn't talk that way anymore. Climate shocks come so frequently that she speaks instead of helping communities to “build resiliency” in light of the inevitably frequent climate shocks. It didn’t used to be this way.
  • Disaster Response Manager Chris Shiundu told us that farm planning has become much more difficult. Kenyans recall that in the past, on Christmas, they would feast; the following day, they would eat the leftovers; and the next day they would plant crops. You could count on the rains within a day or two. Now, no one knows when the rains will come, and planters must watch and wait for erratic rains.
  • Team leader Davis Omanyo put the routine planting date at February 15 in another region, now abandoned because of erratic rains. And he reported that many farmers must purchase twice the normal amount of seed, so that the crop can be replanted after erratic rains cause the first planting to fail. You used to be able to plan your farming calendar. No more.
  • And while drought conditions have taken their toll on food production, Shiundu told us that excess moisture from erratic rains has also caused maize (field corn) to rot on the stalk, resulting in the total loss of crops in some regions.
  • Project Manager Geoffrey manages disaster relief in Mbeere district, where the maize and cowpea harvests have been reduced by 70% this year due to flooding from extremely heavy rains, and the arrival of a pest caterpillar never known before in that region. “People who are 70 years old tell us that this never happened before in their lives,” said Geoffrey, “nor in the prior generation.”

For those of us from carbon-heavy North America, these accounts prompt some serious soul-searching. We know what our greenhouse gases are doing to the climate in general, global terms. We know it’s driving extreme weather, melting ice caps, raising sea levels and acidifying the oceans. Now we’re listening to our fellow Christians tell us of the impact on God’s beloved in Kenya.

Thank you for your accounts Chris, Davis and Geoffrey. Thank you Jacqueline, Stephan and your many co-workers. We will do our best in the coming weeks to tell your story to our fellow North Americans, and especially those in our churches. At a minimum, we are one body with those who suffer in the harsh new world faced by many Kenyans today. And if our life patterns back home are responsible for suffering in this distant land, we will do everything we can to bring about the changes you deserve.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood