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Opinion: Drought in pastoral areas of Ethiopia: The missing link between problem and solution?

A recent report by Help Age International, “older pastoralists in the Horn of Africa are calling for urgent action to save them from a drought that is leaving them and their entire way of living passed down the generations, at breaking point.” Picture: Borana, Southern Oromia

By Masresha Taye – Gayo

Addis Abeba – Ethiopia’s pastoral regions are suffering from yet another episode of drought, the fourth in the previous five years. Drought is not a new occurrence in these locations; rather, the severity and frequency of droughts are growing, and they are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Drought has claimed the lives of millions of animals in the last ten years solely. More than a million animals are currently estimated to be affected by Ethiopia’s prolonged drought catastrophe in pastoral areas. Close to 400,000 sheep have been lost in the the first months of this year alone in Borana, Ethiopia’s third-largest pastoral zone after Somalia and Afar. Economically, socially, environmentally, and politically, it’s a disaster.

Simultaneously, a number of state and non-state entities are working to mitigate the effects of the drought on the country’s pastoral and agro-pastoral populations. Such efforts, as well as the issues they encounter, have been around for decades. So, who is to blame for such a disaster: the drought or the actors (politicians, humanitarian groups, researchers, etc.)? The solution is not straightforward because the nature of the problem is recognized from an organizational rather than a grassroots (pastoralist) perspective. But why, like many other countries, does Ethiopia fail to recognize drought and the issues faced by pastoralists in general? The following is an attempt to highlight some of the gaps.

Pastoralism 101: The Fundamentals

Pastoralism is ingrained in those pastoralists’ economic, social, institutional, environmental, and political outlooks, not just as a source of livelihood. Ethiopia has the largest cattle population in Africa, according to statistics. However, pastoralists possess almost two out of every five cattle, nearly seventy percent of goats, and all camels in the dryland system (also referred to as Arid and Semi-Arid Lands-ASALs). Make no mistake: livestock accounts for about 40% of agricultural GDP, which is the country’s economic backbone. Pastoralists and agro-pastoralists own a similar percentage of Ethiopia’s land (40%).

“Without livestock and the environment they exist; our cultural identity is superficial.”

Livestock is a source of food (milk, meat, and dairy products), income (sale of livestock and its products), wealth, and socio-cultural status (sharing responsibilities and exercising cultural matters and rituals) at the household level. Furthermore, livestock and the natural environments in which they operate are closely linked to socio-political, institutional, and environmental interactions. A councilor in Borana’s traditional administration, Gada, whom I met in July (2021), told me, “Without livestock and the environment they exist; our cultural identity is superficial.” A similar relationship exists in Somali between the presence of a Boku (village head) or an Ugaz (clan chief) and the presence of pastoralism.

Pastoralism, however, is not a rosy system in Ethiopia, or anywhere else for that matter. It is confronted with several challenges and changes. Some of the shifts and challenges include increased natural and environmental shocks, land tenure changes, rangeland fragmentation, dwindling indigenous and communal rules and practices, conflicts, demography and livestock numbers, trade and market-related policies and politics, infrastructure expansion and connectivity, and the heavy presence of foreign and external actors. Pastoralism is a risky endeavor.

Drought as a glue to the complex problem

Drought is a scarcity of water and pasture. Due to the failure of seasonal rain, pastures become scarce. This, in turn, causes drought and, as a result, livestock mortality. Livestock mortality leads to food insecurity and further poverty traps in the long run. These are chains of causes and results. This appears to be linear, yet this is not the case. The current humanitarian response stems from a simplification of the drought’s multifaceted nature. I’m not implying that this assistance is ineffective. Instead, any type of development effort should include the drought’s institutional and structural challenges.

To begin with, in a pastoral system, a seasonal rain failure does not always imply drought. This is because pastoralists have pasture resources and reserves for the wet and dry seasons. Mobility is crucial in this situation. Simply put, mobility (also known as movement or migration) refers to the act of withdrawing money from a bank during a cash need. Similarly, water resources are managed in the same way. Water-wells are closed and saved for the dry season when plenty of water is on the surface. Surprisingly, such water sources are not concentrated in one location. As a result, pastoralists relocate when a need arises.

On the other hand, mobility does not happen at random; rather, it is influenced by a variety of circumstances. Understanding the herd’s characteristics, such as size, type, and condition, as well as resource (pasture and water) requirements. Pastoralists define criteria such as the availability of resources in the destination areas and potential conflicts of interest with other pastoral communities. So, why has drought-hit pastoralists in the last few years severe than in the past?

Droughts, flooding, and diseases are becoming more common as a result of climate change (a swarm of locusts). This isn’t the whole tale. Some structural and institutional issues exist. Although wet season grazing grounds are significant, livestock mortality is primarily linked to the availability of pasture during the dry season. Pastoralists have been disenfranchised in Ethiopia since the 1960s due to large-scale development programs. Nearly 40% of valuable dry-season grazing pastures in Afar have been converted to state-run or commercial plantations. Expropriation of land is still going on. Sugar plantations have taken more than half of the land Karayu pastoralists own. Pastoralists in both locations lost significant access to Awash, the only supply of fresh water. Thousands of hectares of community land were enclosed in Borana and parts of Somali as a result of the African Development Bank and African Development Fund’s rangeland rehabilitation project in the 1960s and 70s. Pastoralists were forced to provide breeding stock on a quota system and at predetermined prices because of the vitality of these areas in terms of providing dry season grazing. These lands are presently either privately owned or, in some circumstances, owned by the regional government.

While benefits were realized to pastoralists, several infrastructure developments ignore seasonal mobility and access to pastoral resources. As a result, they obstruct pastoralists’ mobility and access to resources. Pastoralists suffer from the loss of critical pasturelands as a result of unplanned urban or kebele center establishments/expansion. Not all interventions are necessarily bad or adversely affect pastoralists; particularly, schools and health facilities have contributed to the wellbeing of the pastoral community. However, several of such investments disregard the key features of pastoralism. To understand some of such disparities, I distributed digital cameras to pastoralists so that they could take pictures on such issues. Below is a picture was taken by a pastoralist in Borana to demonstrate that the recent planned airport construction by PM Abiy would evacuate close to 200 agro-pastoral households. The regional and federal governments believe “there is enough land for pastoralists, that no need to compensate affected households”, explains Malich, who took the picture. They will be relocated to other areas, which would affect their livelihood and destabilize their socio-institutional establishments. Nonetheless, the land is like a “medicine” for pastoralists to plant crops and use crop residues for their livestock.

Policies encourage riverbank farming, resulting in the privatization and commodification of communal resources. Irrigation and water development projects are being built without regard for access (who accesses and how) to vital pastoral resources. Rather, they lead to resource expropriation by the wealthy and those with close ties to local politicians. Finally, land policies and rules have long ignored communal ownership; they are designed from the perspective of sedentarised (farming community) landholdings. Within the pastoral system, there are many additional variables to consider (endogenous). Increased human and livestock populations; weakened local institutions; rangeland fragmentation; and so on.

When a drought strikes, the system that used to respond by diversifying the risk by implementing local strategies collapses. Dry-season reserves are no longer accessible. Mobility is restricted. Agriculture is being developed on prime wetlands. The wealthy either privatize or commodify the remaining resources. Rain failure causes all other issues, and the system is extremely sensitive to shock absorption. As a result, drought causes havoc throughout the system.

Accept the fact, embrace the drought, and think differently

Drought is at the heart of the problem for pastoralists and the natural, social, and economic environments in which they work. However, as previously stated, it is linked to a variety of issues and is not solely an environmental incident. Pastoralists in the past have shown that they recognize the nature of the drought and respond differently before, during, and after it occurs (collectively and individually). As a result, both state and non-state actors should embrace it, and efforts should align with pastoralists’ logic and perspectives rather than the other way around. The ongoing humanitarian efforts provide relief for pastoralists who have faced problems and challenges for decades. We must act and think in new ways.

Let’s start with the facts: pastoralism in Ethiopia will continue despite numerous challenges and the devastating effects of drought. For the simple reason that it is a more viable and better option in the dryland system than other forms of economic activity/production for the foreseeable future. This does not imply that it has remained static and will continue to do so; rather, it has evolved. This necessitates an understanding of the various issues and paths that pastoralism and pastoralists take.

First and foremost, drought is part and parcel of a dryland system. And due to the global climate change problem, the frequency, severity, and impact are likely to be with us for a long time. As a result, efforts by external actors (both state and non-state) should begin to recognize that the problem is not pastoralism but rather a complex of local, regional, and global factors. As a result, interventions should be limited to assisting pastoralists in improving their ability to respond to disasters without jeopardizing their local responses.

Second, policymakers must understand and acknowledge the distinction between pastoralism and farming. As a result, the stories about pastoralism should not be compared to farming or any other form of economic activity. In the past, policies toward pastoralists and dryland systems were largely blamed on policymakers’ ignorance. This, however, has morphed into broader socio-political concerns. Pastoralists, according to those at the center (state-led) narratives, are a source of instability and insecurity. A policy bias that resulted in the confiscation of pastoral lands for “investment” or sedentarising pastoralists is now complicated by regional and national political considerations. As a result, there is corruption and poor governance. Furthermore, in the past, scarcity of resources (pasture or water) caused conflict in pastoral areas bordering the Oromia and Somali regions. In recent decades, they have become increasingly political, intending to gain a political or personal advantage.

“…the wealthy and those with political clout begin to privatize key pastoral resources while disenfranchising the poor and vulnerable.”

Third, a plot of land has different uses and values for a pastoralist than it does for a farmer. For a policymaker, having a base camp and several satellite camps to operate is a luxury, but that’s part of pastoralism. Mobility is required by the natural environment, which requires using dry season pastures while restoring wet season grazing lands and vice versa. As a result, land policies and laws must be aware of the scenarios and dynamics that exist in pastoral areas. Pastoralism should be aided rather than hindered by land-based interventions and investments. Restoration of rangelands or sedentarising pastoralists, for example, has eroded collective (local) resource governance structures in most pastoral areas, as the wealthy and those with political clout begin to privatize key pastoral resources while disenfranchising the poor and vulnerable. Mobility and migratory patterns were disrupted, putting drought coping strategies at risk.

Fourth, external actors should understand the current and possible pathways for pastoralists. UN OCHA’s 2007 study, which brought together pastoralists, researchers, development practitioners, and policymakers, and later studies by other regional scholars (for example, Andy Catley, Jeremy Lind, Ian Scoones in 2013), provides a good insight into the pathways of pastoralism in Ethiopia and the Horn. As a result, development interventions and projects must take into account a variety of factors, both now and in the future. Not all interventions are beneficial to all pastoralists; some exacerbate rather than alleviate problems. For example, water development is critical. However, if suitable governance mechanisms aren’t in place, it may encourage the commodification of pastoral resources near water sources. Similarly, pastoralists’ various opinions should be considered while designing schooling and other infrastructural services.

Finally, any other sort of development intervention, including drought resilience, in pastoral areas necessitates a shift in perspective (socio-economic, institutional, and political). Policies, strategies, and development programs should be cognizant of the system’s distinct characteristics and act accordingly. AS

Editor’s Note: Masresha Taye is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (UK), focusing on Pastoralism. He can be reached at ben.ersam@gmail or This article was first published on the March edition of Addis Standard print magazine.

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