The Economics of Climate Change and Water in Kenya

Every once in a while, someone writes something on the internet without thinking really hard. (Ok, ok, it happens all the time.) This past week, this article was written which called into question the link between climate change and water access in Kenya. I thought I’d respond to it as someone who studies economic development and environmental economics, is working on a masters degree in MSU’s Department of Agriculture, Food, and Resource Economics, and recently spent a year in Kenya.

[Full disclosure, the article calls out the Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church (of which I am am a lifelong member) and at least one current member of their team (of who is made up of several fellow alumni of Calvin College and past classmates of mine). I think I’m far enough along in my training as an objective economist that these facts will not bias my analysis.]

A preliminary note about how environmental economists differ from environmentalists, in general. Pollution is a product of many things we like (i.e. roads, transportation, houses, etc.). Therefore zero pollution is not an optimal amount of pollution. Additionally, allowing firms to pollute as much as they would while maximizing profit and disregarding externalities hurts the production of other things we like (i.e. clean air, fish, parks, ecosystems, etc.). The environmental economist is concerned that we produce the things we like at an additional cost of harming other things we like.

The article (written by Dr. Calvin Beisner, the founder and national spokesperson for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation) disputes the claim that “To help the poor in Kenya (and other developing nations), we must fight global warming”.

It seems fair to be skeptical of such a broad statement. But lets walk through each of the article’s points and try to (objectively) come to a conclusion without letting our emotions bias the result. Dr. Beisner’s first point:

Kenya has not experienced a significant upward trend in average temperature, either monthly or annually.

He’s not wrong about this. In fact, according to NOAA Kenya’s land temperature has only increased less than 1% since the base period of 1981-2010.

Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 12.02.06 AM


But this kind-of completely misses the point. Just because the average temperature of the air that happens to be within Kenya’s boarders isn’t rising, doesn’t mean Kenya or the people of Kenya are not effected by rising global temperatures. This highlights the major obstacle with global climate change policy. The climate is a strict public good. One person’s use of it doesn’t restrict another person’s use of it, and we cannot prohibit anyone from using it. (Economists call these characteristics “non-rivalry” and “non-excludability”.) So, just because the air temperature isn’t per say rising the quickest in Kenya doesn’t mean Kenya isn’t vulnerable to climate change. Consider some quick facts.

  • Agriculture accounts for over 30% of added value of Kenya’s annual GDP growth.
  • Agriculture accounts for 18% of wage employment and 50% of revenue from exports in Kenya.
  • 75% of Kenya’s population lives in rural areas.
  • 75% of Kenyans make their living by farming.
  • About 50% of Kenya’s total agricultural output is non-marketed subsistence production.
  • 45.9% of people in Kenya live below the national poverty line.

(All stats from the World Bank)

Therefore when one begins to map the impacts of Climate Change, Kenya (and other developing countries which rely heavily on agricultural production) are extremely vulnerable. The map below shows vulnerability to a 5.5 degrees centigrade increase in global temperature, which is rather dramatic, but not outside of the trend. It is important to note as well, that this map is produced by running agricultural production models through different scenarios and forecasting output, even if you don’t believe climate change is man-made, you can’t deny our earth’s temperatures are rising, and if trends continue dramatic losses will occur, often in our world’s poorest regions. You may be inclined to bet that global temperatures are cyclical, but why bet on the fate of the most vulnerable in the world, when we can try to make the world better?

Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 12.24.34 AM

The article then quibbles at the idea that rainfall patterns have changed in Kenya over the years:

Yet the videos did cite native Kenyans saying January rainfall had diminished over their lifetimes, and February rainfall had increased, making it more difficult for them to schedule planting.

But childhood memories are notoriously poor data sources, both for the past and for comparison with the present. Hard data are indispensable.

And the hard data in the table below show that, while rainfall amounts have risen and fallen in Kenya since 1900, there is no significant trend.

In 1990–2009, Kenya’s average annual rainfall was 7.2% higher than in 1900–1930, 8.5% higher than in 1930–1960, 1.5% higher than in 1960–1990, and 5.7% higher than in 1900–1990. Thus, the United Nations Development Program concluded in its country profile for Kenya, “Observations of rainfall over Kenya since 1960 do not show statistically significant trends,” and because annual amounts vary significantly more than those periodic averages, the same can be said for the entire 110-year period.

Contrary to the perceived memories reported in the videos, there was no reduction in rainfall in January or increase in February. The very opposite was true. Average January rainfall in 1990–2009 was 18.7% higher than in 1900–1930, 25.1% higher than in 1930–1960, 11.2% higher than in 1960–1990, and 18.1% higher than in 1900–1990. And average February rainfall in 1990–2009 was 4% lower than in 1900–1930, 4.4% higher than in 1930–1960, 4% lower than in 1960–1990, and 1.4% lower than in 1900–1990.

Here, I’d just like to point out the danger of using averages to draw inference, because if Dr. Beisner had any statistics education worth its fee of admission he’d be concerned with the validity of an average drawn from a heterogeneous population of observations. Just as a patient asks a doctor if a medical treatment shown to cure an aliment on average will work for her, specific regions of Kenya may be concerned that they experience different rainfall patterns than the entire country of Kenya on average.

Now, perhaps he is correct and rainfall patterns haven’t changed very much over the years in the various regions of Kenya. Remember that the only reason rainfall is brought up as a topic is because rain is considered an input for agricultural productivity. Obviously other factors contribute to agricultural productivity, not just rain. And the models which create maps as the one above takes as many of these factors into account as possible. Maize (corn) is Kenya’s largest agricultural product by far, and maize has an ideal temperature in which it likes to grow, too hot and it will die. While the average temperature of Kenya isn’t shown to have risen very much (again) on average. Even one extra day of extreme temperatures will seriously harm maize productivity. This is only one other factor. Other factors include, soil quality, fertilizer quality, human capital effectiveness, etc.

The article continues:

Are poor Kenyans suffering from water shortages? Yes. Is that because of global warming—manmade or natural? No. Is fighting global warming the solution? No.

Despite its moderate annual rainfall totals (about 26 inches per year, similar to that of Kansas and Minnesota), Kenya is potentially a water-rich nation. It borders on Lake Victoria—the second-largest freshwater lake in the world by area and ninth-largest continental lake by volume.

Most of Kenya, including its driest part, the Great Rift Valley, is within 200 miles of Lake Victoria, a distance readily served by aqueducts.

For comparison, the Roman aqueducts, built two millennia ago, carried water 260 miles, and the system of aqueducts constituting the California State Water Project (SWP) provides drinking water for over 23 million people (roughly half the entire population of Kenya) by transporting water hundreds of miles from the Colorado River, the Sierra Nevada, and central and northern California. The shortest, the Colorado River Aqueduct, is over 240 miles long.

What to do with a statement like this. I’ll just list some the problems:

  1. Kansas and Minnesota don’t have rainy seasons like Kenya. So sure, they might receive similar inches in rainfall per year, but the application is entirely different. If Kenya’s rains are disturbed by just a little bit (by being delayed by a week or by raining less) Kenyan farmers are much more vulnerable than farmers in Kansas and Minnesota.
  2. I’d like to see a feasibility study for aqueducts providing Kenya with water from Lake Victoria. It would have to be mighty creative.
  3. It is borderline hilarious that water access in California and the Colorado River Aqueduct are bought up as a potential model for Kenya to mimic, considering that water access in California and the Colorado River Aqueduct is one of the most unsustainable (strictly speaking economically, not to mention environmentally) in the world.
  4. Lake Victoria is bordered by not only Kenya but also Uganda and Tanzania and has rivers that run into Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan and beyond. If Kenya began to pump tons of gallons of water out of Lake Victoria (like California does to the Colorado River) the rest of these countries would be outraged, and likely begin to pump water out of Lake Victoria themselves. Here we would have a “common pool resource problem” similar to that of the climate and the world.

The article ends with this dramatic statement:

Sad to say, however, if climate change activists succeed in enacting policies to fight global warming, Kenya’s economic growth will be curtailed.

Why? Because abundant, reliable, affordable energy is an essential condition of economic growth, and activists seek to fight global warming by shunning the use of the most reliable and affordable energy sources for the developing world—coal and natural gas—and putting far more expensive “Green” energy sources like wind and solar in their place.

As it happens, Kenya has an estimated 400 million tons of coal reserves and is about to begin mining them, making the coal available to generate electricity and deliver its people from the smoke that comes from burning wood and dried dung as primary cooking and heating fuels—smoke that causes high rates of illness and premature death, especially among women and children, from respiratory diseases.

In 2013, two other evangelicals made almost identical claims about climate change in Malawi. As I demonstrated then, those claims were false and based on the same kinds of mistakes shown in these videos.

I commend the good motives and lofty goals of those who make these claims. But motives and goals aren’t enough. Accurate facts are essential to wise decisions.

Ironically, and sadly, the climate policy the makers of these videos want will only bring further harm to the very people they long to help, by prolonging their poverty—the real threat to Kenyans’ health and life.

Here lies the problem with the current climate change debate. On the one side we have climate change activists who (probably rightly) see that something needs to be done to curtail climate change, reduce pollution, and protect the environment. On the other side we have climate change skeptics who (probably rightly) see the policies advocated by environmentalists as potentially harmful to economic growth and productivity. The debate has reached a point in which nothing productive is being discussed, even though the optimal answer (in terms of the economy and the environment) is not a compromise on either side but a simple realization in the importance of what each side is selling. Environmental sustainability on one side and economic viability on the other. Good environmental policies will not curtail Kenya’s economic growth, they will make Kenya’s future stronger.

Don’t believe me? Study some economics. (Or simply listen to this Freakonomics Podcast.)

I’d love to hear from you about the topic. Please comment or leave a question below.

3 thoughts on “The Economics of Climate Change and Water in Kenya”

    1. John, I read your rebuttal and really appreciated what you said. We overlapped on a couple of points, which is great! I’d love to find a way to collaborate. Send me an email (bloem.jeff [at] gmail [dot] com), I’d love to share ideas.

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