William Ruto’s Climate Stake

Kenyan President William Ruto
Kenyan President William Ruto

Kenya faces environmental issues such as desertification, pollution, flooding, and overpopulation. These difficulties have led to a rise in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and contributed to the increased hardships for the Kenyan agricultural economy. President Ruto believes that both Kenya and the African continent are being treated unfairly – like “beggars” during climate talks. Although African countries produce negligible greenhouse gas emissions, they are left to fund their own climate development and mitigation initiatives themselves. Ruto believes that the unfair nature of climate diplomacy stems from the fact that emitters of greenhouse gases and pollution get better rates of development than Kenya, making the case that “those who have caused the least pollution are being punished”. Thus, President Ruto calls for a system that holds polluters accountable for the damages they are causing internationally.

Ruto’s interest in the environment and climate change is also seen through his previously mentioned academic experience. Apart from his undergraduate degree, MSc., and Ph.D., he has also written several academic papers on Kenya’s environment, such as his Ph.D. thesis titled ‘Influence of anthrologenic activities on land use/cover changes and environmental quality of Saiwa wetland watershed, in Western Kenya’.

President Ruto uses climate policies as both development and recognition tools. From a developmental perspective, by introducing new climate policies that require funding, Ruto aims to increase international investment in Kenya to improve the lives of Kenyans who have been affected by climate change. A key component of increasing foreign direct investment in Kenya is through voluntary carbon markets. Ruto also uses climate policies as recognition tools to gain popularity ahead of the next elections. As a populist leader, Ruto’s election campaign focused on appeasing the general will of the Kenyan people– his promises of fertiliser subsidies serving as a prime example. One could contend that Ruto employs climate policies with the aim of transforming Kenya into a renewable energy powerhouse, leveraging them as a means to assure the Kenyan populace of prospective prosperity.

Environmental Challenge #1: Desertification  

Desertification is the degradation of arid and semiarid land (ASAL)– areas that are characterised by low rainfall, shallow soils with low water-holding capacity, and low soil fertility. In Kenya, the ASAL constitute about 84% of the total land mass and are inhabited by about 34% of the country’s population. The ASAL are vulnerable to droughts and food insecurity, undermining the long-term viability of initiatives in this region. This creates a challenging living environment for residents, and contributes to the reality that 60% of ASAL inhabitants live below the poverty line. Such severe droughts negatively impact local communities, causing water shortages, increasing temperatures, and reducing vegetation and its nutritive qualities. The droughts can also trigger local conflicts over scarce resources and cause food insecurity by stunting the growth of crops and increasing the amount of livestock lost. Such issues were particularly prominent in 2022, as the loss of pasture and watering points for livestock in the ASAL region led to the death of over 1,500,000 million cattle, which are an abundant source of nutrition for pastoral communities.

Since 2010, Kenya has suffered from over four major droughts, affecting food insecure people and causing widespread economic damage. Between 2019 and 2023, more than 2 million people have been displaced due to drought in the Horn of Africa, 408,000 of those Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kenya.

Desertification in Kenya has also increased the amount of food insecure people. From March to June 2023, an estimated 5.4 million people (32% of the ASAL population) are projected to face IPC AFI Phase 3 or above. Such levels of food insecurity are primarily driven by the successive below average rainy seasons Kenya suffers from, which lead to below average crop production, near crop failure, and poor livestock production. Localised resource-based conflicts and the high food prices as a result of the war in Ukraine and low in-country production has caused an increase in food insecurity in Kenya.  

Figure 2: Map of Kenya’s ASAL Districts

Figure 3: Projected Acute Food Insecurity in Kenya from March – June 2022

Environmental Challenge #2: Floods

A rise in the world’s temperatures has not only led to an increased rate of water evaporation that in turn causes droughts, but it has also increased the amount of water vapour the atmosphere is capable of holding, decreasing the rate at which the atmosphere is able to saturate water– this has led to increased flooding. As such, drought and flooding occur in a vicious cycle where drought-prone regions (such as the ASAL) are not able to properly retain water, meaning that when a rainstorm does occur, so do floods and erosion. 

Flooding was reported in more than three quarters of Kenya’s counties in 2020. During that same year, approximately 300 lives were lost due to flooding and over 800,000 people affected across the country throughout the short rains season, a period that lasted from November to December. In 1997 and 1998, Kenya suffered from the El Niño floods, which caused US$151.4 million in public and private property damage and led to a loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, and land degradation. Flooding is also unsurprisingly detrimental to Kenya’s agricultural sector– destroying farmlands and infrastructure, and causes an increased incidence of diseases such as cholera or typhoid. Between October 2022 and March 2023, Kenya reported a total of 7,350 cases of cholera and 116 cases of death. Sea level rise is expected to impact 86,000 people a year and lead to an annual loss of about KES 6 billion by 2030.

Flooding also leads to internal displacement and climate migration throughout Kenya. Nairobi is particularly prone to flash flooding due to poor drainage, lack of infrastructure, and inefficient garbage collection. Residents in Kenya’s capital suffer from displacements, while rural to urban migrants arrive every day, driven by climate catastrophes. Another example is the indigenous communities (Enderios and El Molo) in Bogoria and Turkana, who are progressively displaced due to rising water levels. As an indigenous fishing community, the rising levels of Lake Turkana have caused hundreds of El Molo households to be submerged, increasing cases of waterborne diseases and malnutrition, with about 2,500 residents reporting food insecurity. As such, many have left their community in search for higher plains and grazing land. However, internal migration to neighbouring counties has been met with resistance from raiders who object to the shared use of land, leading to increased conflict. 

The consequences of flooding make this environmental challenge a crucial concern for Ruto –  as such, during his presidency he has executed initiatives to both combat and mitigate its effects. On the 15th of October, 2022, Ruto inaugurated the Thiba Dam, which is not only capable of holding 15 million metres cubed of water, but is equipped with a spillway that prevents flooding during the rainy season. He also launched the National Tree Planting Initiative, which aims to plant 15 billion trees by 2032. 

Environmental Challenge #3: Pollution

With regards to the environmental challenge of pollution, this section will analyse the effect of domestic/industrial pollution and water/air pollution on the Kenyan population. 

Household Air Pollution (HAP) results in severe health risks such as pneumonia, strokes, heart disease and death. Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) are majorly linked with exposure to pollutants from domestic biomass fuels in less developed countries and account for more than 6% of worldwide disease and mortality rates. As of 2021, Kenya had 4.3 million vehicles which significantly contributed to the high levels of air pollution in Kenya. Vehicular exhaust is the main source of  fine particles existing within the inhalable range and the total suspended particles in Nairobi are higher than the WHO recommended level indicating a need for a regular air quality management system. Ruto’s government contribution has been aimed at training health workers on how to educate the population on the effects of air pollution and to provide policy support to drive the transition to clean fuels in household and institutions. For example, in February 2023, the Taifa Gas Company was introduced to provide gas at a cheaper price and to substitute household stoves and firewood with Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) at the household level. 

With reference to industrial waste disposal, lack of proper air quality management systems explains the fact that 90% of toxic emissions (chlorine, sulphur dioxides, hydrogen sulphides, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides) enter the atmosphere and 10% into the water with high probabilities of industrial accidents occurring. As the capital of Kenya, Nairobi leads in the number of industrial parks in Kenya. Ruto and Johnson Sakaja (Nairobi’s Governor), have expressed keen interest in “bringing back the glory of the city of Nairobi by dealing with refuse” in plans to clean up the city and use waste to generate electricity. A great market exists for the creation of affordable energy and electricity given the estimated 2,400 tons of solid waste in Nairobi with 20% being plastic– an appropriate material for pyrocycling. Moreover, waste from bordering countries Uganda and Tanzania goes through the largest lake in Africa, Lake Victoria. The lake suffers from chemical waste and micro plastics which negatively affects the fishing industry. February 2023 marked Ruto’s launch of the Nairobi River Commission to help tackle water pollution in the country’s capital. The policy targets more than 500,000 people, injecting 12 million litres of daily water supply to households. Ultimately, air and water pollution are the most salient forms of pollution greatly affecting the Kenyan population.

Environmental Challenge #4: Overpopulation  

Kenya has a current population of 57.3million, most of which resides in the urban areas of Embakasi and Kasarani in Nairobi County. The challenges of overpopulation puts stress on the environmental vulnerabilities that Kenya faces, such as in health and sustainable consumption.  Nairobi’s largest slum, the Kibera slum, holds more than 250,000 people in an area of 2.5 km and has an annual growth rate of 17%. The effects on the environment and on the country’s natural resources are dire, with water, arable land, and forests being under intense pressure to sustain the growing population and their needs. Further, the increased demand for water has consequently led to water scarcity predominately in urban areas, resulting in inadequate access to clean and safe drinking water. For context, 59% of Kenyans have access to clean and safe drinking water and 29% have access to improved sanitation facilities.

A particular strain has been on agricultural land where issues like deforestation have threatened food supply. Poverty and inequality have thus resulted, which has led to a scarcity of job opportunities, poor access to education, low socioeconomic development and a lack of proper healthcare services.

IExRAIA Summer Research Program:

This article is an excerpt from a report on William Ruto produced as part of a research program RAIA on climate leaders. For a full picture of Ruto’s climate leadership read the full report. This project was fully financed by IE University’s IE School of Politics, Economics and Global Affairs.

Authors: Chiara Cassina and Ruby Wanjikũ Gachara

Editor: Michael Duffy

Project Lead: Joshua Dario Hasenstab


The shared Account of RAIA members and Alumni