"When the camels start dying, you know that it’s desperate"


by Robert Fox
There is no famine in Ethiopia but there are growing numbers of hungry as the drought that has gripped a swath of East Africa decimates herds and puts families in peril.
The hardest hit areas are the Somali and Borana regions in the south, ironically the same parts of the country to which refugees are arriving from Somalia, putting ever more strain on communities that are already struggling to survive.
Most families in this region are ‘pastoralists’. They raise cattle, sheep, goats and camels and historically could make a good – if simple – living. The animals give them milk, meat, fibres, leather and transport. They are their savings accounts and insurance policies. They can be sold or traded for food and services; yet they are treated as valued family members, central to their culture and well-being.

Drought in a climate-changed world

Oxfam Canada has worked with herding communities in Borana for years, helping them improve their lives and better withstand the periodic droughts that have afflicted the region from the beginning of time. But the droughts used to occur every six or seven years, giving time to replenish watersheds and rebuild herds. In a climate-changed world, East Africans are now suffering droughts every year or two, allowing no time to rebound from disaster – leaving them much more vulnerable to the next.
It seems callous to worry about cattle when children are starving. But if we are to prevent even more people from slipping into hunger we need to support herder families and their livestock to survive until the next rains can revive pasture land. And if we are going to put an end to hunger in East Africa, we need to step up our support for sustainable herding and small-scale farms.
I had the opportunity while I was in Ethiopia this week to meet again with Oxfam partners that have been working with pastoralist communities to learn more about the ways we can help them survive the current crisis and get on a more stable footing.
They shared with me some startling statistics.

  • In many communities, families have lost 60, 80, 100 per cent of their cattle, sheep and goats. As one partner said, “when the camels start dying, you know that it’s desperate.”
  • With pasture land converted to a dustbowl, herders are scrambling to buy feed. But the price of a bale of hay has jumped from 25 birr to 100 birr in the space of a couple months.
  • Unable to feed and water their animals, the bottom has fallen out of the market. A steer that would have sold for 3,500 birr is now selling for 400. That’s half the current price of a 100kg sac of corn.

With their herds decimated, their assets stripped and the price of food spiking, literally hundreds of thousands of families are hanging off the edge.

Oxfam helps sustain families
To sustain these families, Oxfam is funding projects to rehabilitate wells and boreholes (ponds used primarily for watering animals). In extreme situations, we’re also trucking water to help sustain families where they are – and stem the growing tide of migrants in search of relief.
Most of the water works are built by the herders themselves – cash-for-work that gives them an income while helping build community infrastructure.  With their earnings, they can buy staples and pay tuition – a deep concern as the number of children who have dropped out of school sky-rockets.
Oxfam has been supporting animal health programs on the one hand and “destocking” on the other. Oxfam buys animals from the herders at a fair price, allowing them to capture some of the value of their livestock. Because water and fodder are both in such short supply, there’s no market for the animals so they are slaughtered, the meat used to supplement the communities’ diet.
Other elements of the emergency response include sanitation and hygiene promotion, food aid and food-for-work, and high nutrition feeding programs targeting malnourished children and pregnant and nursing mothers.
At the same time, work continues on the underlying causes and the long-term solutions to the crisis.
Ten years ago an average herding family in Borana might have 1,000 animals. More recently, this has fallen to 300 – too small a number to withstand the shock. Oxfam partners are working with families to diversify their incomes, mixing in market gardening or trading or selling their labour. One group is intensively growing the aloe native to their region, producing a soap we can then use in our public health activities.

The land: No fallback for tough times

More consideration also needs to be given to the carrying capacity of the land. In the past there were lands held in deep reserve, used only in years of severe drought. But with the numbers of herding families growing, reserve pasture lands are fully grazed. There’s no fallback for tough times.
Ethiopia’s herders are highly self-reliant and resilient. But if we are to find a long-term solution to their plight, much more needs to be done.
Investments in micro-dams and more efficient wells and water troughs have a huge impact in reducing the risk in times of drought. Appropriate technologies like installing metal roofs with eaves on schools and homes capture rainfall which stored can help water a vegetable plot or sustain goats during the dry season. Reforestation projects are vital to retaining groundwater and reducing soil erosion and flash flooding. And clearing scrub from grasslands promotes more efficient grazing practices.
These are just a few of the very practical solutions our partners are already implementing to improve the prospects for herding families and help inoculate them from the impact of a warmer, drier climate and increasingly violent weather.
To tackle this challenge, we need a significant shift in our development funding priorities, focusing more government and donor funding on small-scale agriculture, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. And we need big changes in the global food system to ensure there is enough food always for everyone. Oxfam is tackling these issues through its GROW campaign, a global, multi-year effort to in support of food justice, gender justice and climate justice.
These can sound like lofty and abstract goals. But for the herding families of Borana, they have a deadly urgency.

Robert Fox is Executive Director of Oxfam Canada.


Related August 2011 blogs by Robert Fox: