Climate change threatens an ancient way of life in Ethiopia

Two seasons of failed rains have left millions in Ethiopia's Somali region dependent on food aid, calling into question how viable traditional forms of life still are in an era of changing climate. (Paul Schemm/For The Washington Post)
July 18 at 5:00 AM
— Zeinab Taher once roamed through Ethiopia’s arid Somali region tending a vast herd of 350 sheep, goats and cattle with her nine children.

Then the autumn rains failed and the grass that fed her animals didn’t grow. No rain came this spring, either, and then the livestock began to die. Now, wrapped in her orange shawl, the 60-year-old huddles in a makeshift windblown camp along with several thousand others, depending on food and water from international agencies.

Another drought has seized the Horn of Africa, devastating the livestock herders in these already dry lands. Even as the government and aid agencies struggle to help them, there is a growing realization that with climate change, certain ways of life in certain parts of the world are becoming much more difficult to sustain.

In Ethiopia, which unlike neighboring Somalia or South Sudan has a strong, functioning government, the emergency effort has kept people alive. Authorities and aid agencies are trying to get beyond the immediate humanitarian response and encourage a shift to livelihoods less vulnerable to drought and climate shocks.

“In many pastoral lands, pastoral livelihoods are no longer viable,” said Samir Wanmali, the deputy country director for the World Food Program.

An estimated 450,000 people in the southeastern Somali region have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and retreated to camps to receive food aid in recent months, according to the International Organization for Migration.

At one of the camps, an expanse of sand and thorny scrub dotted with hundreds of huts made out of plastic tarps and twigs, Taher worried that even when the drought ended, she couldn’t simply resume her traditional way of life.

“Even if it rained, we have no animals,” she said. “I can’t think of going back to herding.”

It was just last year that a drought caused by the El Niño warming phenomenon in the Pacific baked Ethiopia’s fertile highlands in the north and center of the country and left more than 10 million people needing food aid. This year, temperature changes in the Indian Ocean have caused a drought in the south and east of the country, a much more arid region populated by shepherds and their flocks.

There are an estimated 5 million people in Ethiopia’s Somali region, of whom about 40 percent are pastoralists engaged in raising animals, according to the last census.

Last year, the Ethiopian government scraped together $700 million of its own funds together with nearly a billion dollars in international assistance to fight the drought. For this year’s crisis, nowhere near the same funding is available as international donors grapple with severe hunger crises in two neighboring war-torn nations — Somalia and South Sudan — and, farther afield, Nigeria and Yemen.

“There’s no appetite out there for another drought in Ethiopia,”said John Graham, the recently departed Ethiopia country director for Save the Children. “Donors are saying we are giving to fragile states, nonexistent states, because we know that no else is going to pick it up” in those countries. Ethi­o­pia, by contrast, is stable, he noted.

It certainly isn’t shaping up to be an easy year for Ethiopia, however, with the latest humanitarian assessment indicating 7.8 million people need food aid at a cost of nearly $1 billion. The Somali region was also battered by severe droughts in 2008 and 2011. With aid less certain, there is more urgency to work on long-term efforts to address the country’s needs.

“It is a vicious cycle because you are literally going from one crisis to another with very little breathing room to take stock,” Wanmali said . “It doesn’t matter where within the country you are, the frequency of climate shocks is getting much closer.”

The man with the unenviable task of heading up Ethiopia’s disaster response is Mitiku Kassa, and he said last-minute donations from Britain, the United States and the European Union should secure food aid to this blighted region until the autumn.

“We realize that the emergency response is just a painkiller, aside from the real problem, so from our side we are working on water harvesting,” he said, explaining that by digging deep wells and pulling water from the region’s few rivers, the government can introduce irrigated agriculture and small farms in a land long known for just herding animals.

Local authorities in the district where Taher and thousands of others have lost their flocks say this effortis the way forward in the face of diminishing rains every year.

“It is getting worse and worse, and we are trying to raise awareness to tell people to change their lifestyle to agro-pastoralist,” said Ali Maadey Ali, the acting administrator for the district. The plan is to get people to grow some food and fodder on irrigated land while owning smaller herds that would be easier to feed in times of drought.

Local officials have been trying to show community elders examples of farms where people have made the transition. From the air, along the area’s main river, a visitor can see a few irrigated fields of corn and other crops glowing green amid the beige wasteland of sand.

“It is tough, it takes time and the budget allocated by the government to this transformation is very low,” Ali acknowledged.

For people who have lived only one way for generations, becoming something else can be daunting.

“ We don’t have any farming skills,” said Kira Ali, 63, who lives in the temporary camp with Taher. As it is, she yearns to be out of the squalid, dense camp.

“Turning to a new life would be very hard — I was living with my animals and we moved from place to place,” she recalled. “Here, we are confined.”

The drought, however, can be a persuasive force. Standing next to her, Taher is starting to come around to the idea of changing her life.

“The government wants us to live in a permanent place, with schools and health centers and leave behind this life,” she said. “We are far from water; if we go to water maybe we could farm.” She said, though, that she would need a lot of help to learn how.

Under Ethiopia’s previous Marxist regime, inhabitants of drought-stricken regions were sometimes forcibly relocated to new areas and told to farm — often with disastrous results.

Current efforts rely on the people being ready for a change. According to Michael Jacobs, who heads a U.S. government-funded aid program called PRIME to develop the livestock sector, in these times of hardship many are looking for new livelihoods.

“If we get a series of these kinds of droughts of this magnitude, livestock populations will just plummet and then there should be a large exodus out of that livelihood,” he said. “More than half may not be pastoralists again.”

Rather than promote farming, his program works on training people in other professions, such as carpentry, welding and mechanics, more suited to the growing urban environments of these regions. At the same time, the program works on modernizing the country’s livestock sector while involving fewer people.

Jacobs explained that although animal raising is always going to be part of Ethiopian culture, it is going to look very different moving forward.

“The way it’s been done in the past will end, but that’s a normal progression as areas become more developed,” he said.

Back in the camp, a few lucky people have other sources of income they hope will see them through the crisis. Abdallahi Abdulay, 55, said he lost the herds of cattle and goats that had let him support three wives and 18 children. But he has some land.

“I can see a way to bring back my life,” said the tall man dressed in a sarong, a blue embroidered shawl on his head.

“If the rains come, we have some rain-fed land, and if we plant and get a harvest, I can buy new animals.”

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