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Pasture pressure

By Chris Hufstader
Pasture is hard to find in the rainy season, and herders are accustomed to traveling two to three days at a time to find grass for their cattle.

When Bilalo Jarsso heard water splashing out of the concrete trough, he immediately jerked his head around, and yelled "Stop!" at the young men filling it with buckets from a large reservoir. The water is simply too precious to allow any to go to waste during the dry season in southern Oromia, where Borena herders struggle to keep their cattle—and themselves—alive.

The reservoir is at the base of large, steep hill, more like a small mountain really. At the top is a spring, from which water flows through pipes to the pond. It was constructed three years ago by a nearby organization called Action for Development with support from Oxfam America. Before then Jarrso's clan members had to herd their cows up the steep hill, the only means to get water in the dry season. Every day cows would expire on the path up to the spring.

"During the dry time there is no grass to eat," Jarsso says. "They could not climb, so we pushed them up, and some would die." There were years in which more than 10 a day would die on that hill.

Piping the water down the hill helps tremendously. More cows can access the water, the herders and their families can retain more of their wealth and can better survive the dry season, and they get clean, fresh water to drink and cook with, and wash their clothes in.

But the reservoir does not help one ongoing problem: herders are reporting that good pasture for grazing their cattle is harder and harder to find, and not just in the dry season. Jarsso and others in his clan say there are three main reasons for the disappearing pasture:

  1. Population pressure: As more and more young people grow up and start their own herds and families, there is greater and greater pressure on existing grasslands to support more cattle. Since it is difficult to move around enough to find good pasture, overgrazing has become a more serious problem than ever.
  2. The rainy season seems to be getting shorter: When there is enough rain the Borena can shift around their herds and share what pasture is available, but when the rainy season is shorter than normal the grass does not grow back—and when grass is not mature it does not satisfy the nutrition needs of the cattle. The traditional system of herding the cows to different areas to allow the grass to grow again does not work when the rains fail.
  3. Bush encroachment: There are more than five species of thorn bushes and trees that are crowding out grasses. The animals can't eat them, and they take up what little water is available. The grass the Borena need for their cows to survive cannot grow. Borena used to burn these bushes to promote the growth of grass and control ticks. But more than 20 years ago this practice was banned by the government and since then the bush is expanding and cows are suffering from tick infestation, and milk production is dropping off.

"The Borena people have many different methods for coping with drought," says Abera Tola, director of Oxfam America's program in Ethiopia. "But some of these bushes are new to them, and the increase in tick infestation may both be related to changes in the climate. We want to research this to find ways to help them."

Bilalo Jarsso said the Borena are trying to survive despite these challenges, and are accustomed to traveling two to three days at a time looking for decent pasture.

"We used to find grass somewhere," he said. It is becoming more and more difficult now.

Oxfam America's partner AFD is helping herders take a more active approach, teaching the Borena to manage their range land more aggressively and actually clear away the encroaching bushes to improve the pasture for grazing. This would be particularly crucial in the dry season, says Tolusa Kemaio, a project officer for AFD.

"The dry season is a very serious time here," he says. "People really struggle, and they can't just slaughter their animals to survive."