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Ethiopia: Aiding Pastoralist Communities Wilting After 5 Years of Drought

by Gillian Moyes, Response Team Leader, Afar, Ethiopia

The Afar landscape is spectacular. As we drive through black volcanic rock, desert and white salt flats, I keep thinking this strange landscape would make a great location for a science fiction movie.

Most of Afar’s 1.4 million people live in the south, close to the Awash river where there is farmland and grazing for animals.

The women use stones to show how many livestock they had 5 years ago and how many they have now

Here in the north, where temperatures top 50 degrees, communities of nomadic pastoralists have survived for generations.

They’ve followed their camels and goats to find water and pasture, living well from meat and milk when times were good and sharing what they have when times were hard.

But over the last 5 years, successive droughts have made this way of life untenable. This year, after rains failed yet again, the regional government declared a humanitarian crisis.

After 4 hours, we turn off onto a rocky track through open desert. In the village of Kuriswad, the villagers tell us about the challenges they face.

Animals in crisis

“Before, our animals gave milk, we made butter and ate well,” says the chief. “But as time went on we had drought and there was no grass.

“The animals started dying. We used to slaughter them for meat, but now we have so few, we are really concerned. There are no animals for the children to look after, and no milk for them to drink.”

The women use stones to count out the animals they had 5 years ago and the number that remains. It is about 20%. They rely on cereals distributed through the government safety-net programme, but it is not enough and children are missing the meat and milk that prevent malnutrition.

In the worst-affected areas, 25% of children under 5 and almost a third of mothers are malnourished. There are also severe water shortages. The Kuriswad villagers dig shallow pits in the nearby dry river bed but the water is sandy and not safe for drinking.

Like many pastoralist communities, they have chosen to settle so they can access services. “Education is our only route to survival,” the chief tells us, “so we put all our children in school”. Some adults have gone to Afdera town to work in the salt trade, sending back food and money, but there are few other options.

Water for life

Save the Children already runs a nutrition programme in Afdera and 5 similar districts. Using emergency response funding, we are bringing in more staff and vehicles so we can reach remote areas like Kuriswad before their situation worsens.

We will soon start a meat and milk voucher programme and provide feed and animal health services to protect the remaining livestock.

We are trucking in water, rehabilitating broken hand pumps, and providing hygiene items like soap. In Kuriswad, we plan to dig wells and install hand pumps. This has worked well in similar areas in Afar.

In the longer term, we want to find innovative ways to manage the natural resources on which the Afar way of life depends.

Short-term interventions are critical to save lives, but these must be backed up by long-range plans that will enable the Afar pastoralists to regain the resilience that is so much part of their way of life.

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