During the severe drought of 1979-1981 over 80,000 Turkana people of northwestern Kenya left their pastoral lifestyle and migrated into famine relief camps. Although the drought affected both northern and southern Turkana district, the people who left the pastoral sector lived primarily in northern Turkana. A comparison of the pastoral economies of these two groups revealed that the indigenous drought coping institutions of the northern Turkana had begun to break down, while those of the southern Turkana remained viable. Analysis further revealed that the northern Turkana were subject to stress arising from inter-ethnic conflict, raiding, political instability, national boundary restrictions and the famine relief effort itself. The study concludes that the maintenance of indigenous drought coping institutions, based on a system of social relations and the redistribution of surplus, is critical for long term survival in this drought prone area of the world; and that these institutions have been made recently vulnerable to stresses beyond the control of the local people.